Tell Me About It

Since our son turned 15 I cannot think of a single person he has socialised with

Tell Me About It: Up until two years, he was a fun-loving, gregarious boy with lots of friends – now he has completely isolated himself and has started to fail in school

PROBLEM: I am married with three children. We have two grown-up daughters, who have left home and are now making a life of their own, and a 17-year-old son who we are both really worried about.

As a child and a young teenager he was boisterous, gregarious and generally great fun to be around. Up until two years ago he had lots of friends, both male and female, but since he turned 15 I cannot think of a single person that he has socialised with. I know he does communicate with some people on social media, but he hasn’t gone to a party or an event or met up with anyone in years.

He has started to fail a number of subjects in school and when we spoke to his teachers they said they have noticed a change in him – he has become isolated, sits on his own in class, eats his lunch on his own and at break time sits in corridors looking at this phone.

When he was growing up, my husband and I both thought he may be gay – he was very sensitive and more often than not veered towards our daughters’ toys, and his expressions are also quite camp. As he has grown older, I have noticed that he looks at boys differently to girls and at one point was fixated on a slightly older male neighbour. I know my husband and I would both be very happy if he is gay, and if he were to come out, we feel that he would be at peace with himself and be in a better situation to enjoy his life. Both our daughters do not think that this is the issue; they think that whilst he may be gay, lots of young people are and that coming out is much easier than it would have been in previous years, particularly when someone has a liberal and loving family.

Our daughters think his issues run a lot deeper – they think the level to which he isolates himself is unusual and that the changes in his academic achievement and personality over the past few years have been extraordinary. I recently asked him if he would like to seek help and I made a number of proposals including counselling. He got really upset and disappeared for two days.

We do not know where he went but we are terrified to broach the subject again.

ADVICE: It sounds as though your son is in a deep depression and his way of coping is isolating himself – that he left for two days when you tried to be upfront is very frightening for you, but he did return, and he must have some knowledge of how he is loved and cherished.

That you will totally accept and love him for any choices he makes sexually or otherwise is perhaps not something he may be fully cognisant of

He clearly needs a very sensitive approach, but some action needs to happen as two years is a very long time to be so withdrawn and the current trajectory is downwards. While your daughters feel that coming out is easy in our world, I doubt that many gay teenagers feel this. Being different in secondary school is a huge challenge and exclusion is one of our biggest fears – your son may feel at a fundamental level that his survival relies on no one discovering who he really is.

That you will totally accept and love him for any choices he makes sexually or otherwise is perhaps not something he may be fully cognisant of, as withdrawing is his only survival tool at the moment. It is common in schools to put people or their actions down by saying “that’s so gay”. Whatever the thinking behind the use of this expression, the message to someone who is coming to terms with their non-straight sexual orientation is that they are not acceptable.

We all fear being discovered as less than what we are putting ourselves out to be – the word for this is imposter-syndrome and it is now recognised as a syndrome that even the most successful people suffer from. The way out of this suffering is to find a way to be accepting of ourselves and then to be more open and honest in our interactions – this is what confidence really is. This means facing our fears of rejection and taking the risk of exposing our vulnerabilities.

I wonder if you could talk with the school and see if there is a particular teacher who might take an interest in your son and ask him to help out with some project

I wonder if you could begin to face your own fears and talk about them and your subsequent experiences at the dinner table. It might be good for your son to hear that you too have vulnerabilities and fears and you do not always have answers. It might be useful for him to hear that when you are in trouble you are able to ask for help and that it takes immense courage to do this.

I wonder if you could talk with the school and see if there is a particular teacher who might take an interest in your son and ask him to help out with some project. This should start in a very small way as he is likely to be easily overwhelmed. Offering him sight of a future where he might find acceptance is another option – perhaps visiting third-level colleges where there is evidence (poster campaigns etc) of Students Unions that have a broad spectrum of sexual orientations might give him hope for his future.

You, as parents could also seek out other parents who have been through supporting their young people through depression or coming out (type “support for parents of LGBTQ young people” into a search engine). Perhaps your GP could be talked to and in any subsequent engagement they might have with your son they might be able to tackle the depression from a medical perspective and this could be the beginning of intervention for him.