Adventures in Parenting
By Karen Brown
March 7, 2014
One morning, after the superintendent closed our town’s schools for the third snowstorm of the season, I looked out my kitchen window to see packs of neighborhood kids dragging brightly colored sleds down our cul-de-sac. No doubt they were heading for Hospital Hill, the favorite sledding mecca of the local orthopedists’ union.
My eighth-grade boy was sitting at his computer, watching a YouTube video on ice-climbing.
“Why don’t you call a friend to go sledding?”
His response was predictable. “Nah, don’t feel like it.”
I tried to sound breezy. “Ok. But what about the nice boy you sit next to on the bus?”
My son, who loves playing in the snow, looked out the window. “Nah, too much trouble.” I knew that my friends’ kids would be on the hill by now, joking around with their buddies. “Want to just go with me? Maybe we’ll run into someone you know.” This time, he ignored me altogether.
My son is an affectionate boy in good health with a bright, curious mind. But he would rather stay home with his family the entire weekend than see, call or text his classmates. He regularly chooses Scrabble with Mom over movies with peers. He has no interest in sleep-away camp, or any summer camp, and when we force him to go anyway, he dreads it for weeks.
Our next-door neighbor called him the wrong name for nine years because he found it too awkward to make the correction.
When he turned 12, he chose a small birthday party at home with two boys he’s known since kindergarten, even though we offered to buy him a new video game if he invited one new kid he’s met over the last five years. “It just wouldn’t feel comfortable,” he said. The next year, he declined a party.
So what do I make of all this, as a concerned parent …who happens to be a mental health reporter?
|The fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical|
Manual of Mental Disorders.
Naturally, I dive headfirst into the standard diagnostic manual of psychiatrists – known as the D.S.M. – and start coming up with clinical possibilities: He could have Social Anxiety Disorder. Or maybe Social Phobia. Perhaps Generalized Anxiety Disorder?
Or, he could just be shy.
Except by now, I’ve dragged him to myriad child psychologists and therapy programs, none of which made him more comfortable in social situations, but they did make him annoyed and probably more self-conscious.
Which brings me to a question that has been dogging over-anxious parents as well as the mental health field: Is it worse to treat a disorder that isn’t there, or to ignore one that is? And how can you tell the difference? To help me figure that out, I took a class at Harvard taught by the clinical psychologist and anxiety expert Dr. Richard McNally.
“Who’s to say what’s disorder, and what’s normal response to life’s events,” Dr. McNally said at the start of class one day, pacing in front of his Power Point. “Where do you draw the line?”
One theory on what turns a behavior into a pathology, he explained, is whether it gets in the way of “normal” functioning. Well … my son doesn’t go to school dances; frankly, that seems normal enough. But he also turns down group wilderness outings, running camps and other activities that, when they’re not couched in a social context, he loves doing. I think he’s missing out on opportunities. He says he doesn’t care.
So is his introversion a problem for him — or for me?
With that lens, I’ve quietly observed his entry into high school, where, to my relief, he joined the cross-country team. I would watch him during meets, and while he wouldn’t talk much to his teammates, he’d smile and laugh near them. He didn’t go to all the after-meet parties, but he went to some.
Then again, when I received an email from the school advertising the winter semi-formal, he quickly leaned over me, hovering his finger over the delete key.
“But you could just go for an hour—“ I tried.
“No, mom. No.” Scrabble night it was.
There’s still a chance my son’s social anxiety could get worse over the years and interfere with his personal or professional well-being. But it’s just as likely he simply doesn’t have the gregarious temperament of his mother and will find friends who appreciate that in him. In the meantime, I am choosing to be grateful for a teenager who still likes hanging with his mom.
Karen Brown is a Senior Reporter/Producer with New England Public Radio, a Freelance Contributor to The Boston Globe and a 2012-13 Knight Fellow in Science Journalism.