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My teenage son is in no hurry to be independent. What should we do?

Answered by Amanda Mintzer, PsyD

Q My teenage son is still very much insecure and co-dependent. He is in no hurry to be on his own, show responsibility, or be social in his senior year. I am concerned he may have anxiety, autism or just be insecure. Looking to get a recommendation on what type of doctor to send him to, whether that be a psychiatrist or a counselor? I feel like I am not the best person he can talk to. Please help.

The first thing I’d recommend is a consultation with a psychologist to get a better understanding of what your son is struggling with. A psychologist will have experience teasing apart symptoms and figuring out what is behind them. A good diagnostic evaluation will take into account your son’s history and get information from a number of different people. Ideally the psychologist will talk to you, your teenager and his teachers at school to gather as much information as possible. The goal is to get a clear picture of how your child is doing and get to the bottom of what might be causing some of the behaviors that you are seeing.

It could be that your child has something called social anxiety disorder and he might be worried about being judged. Was he social before and now he isn’t as interested? Or has he never had interest? Autism tends to be diagnosed when kids are younger, so if no one has mentioned autism before it is less likely, but still possible. It can sometimes be hard to distinguish symptoms of anxiety, symptoms of autism and signs of a child who is just a little slower to want to be independent, so speaking to a professional like a psychologist who has experience evaluating kids is important.

I’d also say that COVID-19 has exacerbated symptoms for many kids and teens. For almost the last two years, our kids and teens have been at home and much less social. This has caused even previously independent teens to regress and be more reliant on their parents. For some, going back to school was exciting, while for others, it was very anxiety-provoking. And as parents who are biologically inclined to take care of our kids, we can sometimes fall into the trap of over-accommodating them. We’re trying to help them, but we may end up doing everything for them (like all the dishes and the laundry and making plans for them, for example). This works against their independence as it doesn’t motivate them to start doing those things on their own. So regardless of if your son’s behaviors rise to the level of a disorder, you might find that you can start showing your support for your son in a different way, by taking a step back and “scaffolding” him as he learns to be more independent. This might mean expressing confidence that he can do things and offering to help brainstorm solutions if he has any challenges.