Q. My 15-year-old son is a good kid. He makes good choices regarding personal habits. He gets A’s and B’s in school. I try not to nag him and to respect his need to be independent in his decision-making. He has lots of friends and is a good judge of people. He plays competitive tennis and is a big fan of professional football. He is also an introvert who tends toward depression, which is a problem, historically, on my side of the family. Adults in his life — teachers and coaches — seem to expect him to be cheerful and extroverted. I think he often looks sullen and uncooperative when that’s not what he is actually feeling. A tennis coach commented to a bystander (when my son had his ear buds in and the coach probably thought he couldn’t be heard) that my son has “an attitude like a snake.” His Spanish teacher told him, in front of the class, that he was “acting like a punk.” These comments are hurtful to him. I don’t want to be a helicopter parent, and I think it’s important that my son learn how others perceive his attitude. But it makes me angry that adults who are supposed to support him are unkind and inappropriate. What does a parent do when adults are rude and insulting to a teenager?
A. Whoa, there’s a lot going on here! But there is a lot of good news, too. You easily name many of your son’s excellent attributes, and although depression may run in your family, he appears to be doing well in many areas. A cohort of friends? Check. Solid grades? Check. Interest in activities that bring him enjoyment? Check. Age-appropriate independence? Check.
And I see some more good news: While you don’t want to be a helicopter parent, you are aware that it would be useful for him to understand how others perceive him. This shows me that you are a thoughtful parent who is trying to find your way through this maze.
Let’s take a look at this introversion and depression issue. A couple of points:
• While introversion and depression are often correlated, introversion does not cause depression.
• Depression can show up as perfectionism (especially in adolescents), so look for that as well as other changes in mood and behavior.
• While depression has a genetic component, do not assume your son is depressed solely because of his family history. It is common and too easy for parents to take their family stories and spin them into a tale of worry for their children. Keep your eyes open to the possibility of depression, but trust more in what you see. By all accounts, your son is living a full, robust and emotionally healthy life. Trust that. To learn more about introversion, check out “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” by Susan Cain.
As for the adults in his life: I have to admit, I felt defensive for your son when I read your question. What kind of teachers and coaches call kids “snakes” and “punks”? It does not speak to their professionalism, nor does it speak highly of their understanding of children and development. Maybe my standards are too high, but I expect better of people.
But all of my hopes and wishes aside, we need to address the issue with your son’s facial expressions.
To help me navigate this sensitive territory, I turned to John Duffy, author of “The Available Parent.” He specializes in helping adolescents and does compassionate, smart work. But the reason I really love him is that he spins complex therapeutic ideas into simple strategies for teens and their parents.
When I showed him this letter, the point that Duffy wanted to emphasize was that the parent is an “ally and a guide” in this scenario. There is no real prescription or fix here. The parent needs to approach this with sensitivity.
“Instead of presuming a problem, sit down and have a conversation without forcing, controlling his choices about how to move forward,” Duffy says. Drop your assumptions about how this is going to play out.
Say something like: “These are things that both you and I have heard from some of the adults in your life. I don’t like how they are saying it, but this is a perception issue. They are seeing your passive face as a scowl or somehow full of attitude. How do you feel about this?” And then pause. See what happens, and resist the urge to answer or speak for him.
Duffy also highlights that it is important to transfer the power back to the teen. He suggests saying: “This is important information for you to know. You can either do something to change this or simply accept it and be aware of it.” In either case, Duffy says, the most important thing to convey is that you are on your son’s side.
It hurts when other adults do not see your child the way you do, with all of his talent and wonderful characteristics. But you have a supporting role in this. Speak with him honestly and kindly, and make your best attempt at beginning a dialogue. This requires openness, patience and a listening ear. You are up to this challenge. Be proud of the young man he has become and support his wonderful, introverted ways — while helping him become more aware of his facial expressions.
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Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for March 30.