Care and Feeding

My Introverted Teen Is Desperate to Be Popular

We’ve always preached self-acceptance, but after years of him feeling overshadowed by his peers, should we be giving him different advice?

A teenage boy smiling sheepishly, alone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jupiterimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I know this is going to sound like a nonproblem at first, but there is a deeper issue that troubles me. Our 16-year-old son is an amazing kid: intelligent, hardworking, and athletic. He is a straight-A student who juggles multiple AP classes with a demanding sports schedule. He is one of the top three students in his class and is also being recruited by college coaches for his sport. But ever since he was in elementary school, we’ve had the same experience at the end-of-year awards ceremonies: He’ll occasionally get recognized for the “objective” awards, like honor roll or scoring the highest on foreign-language tests, but he has never won a single “subjective” award, the ones selected by teachers/coaches or voted on by his peers. When he was little, we would console him by saying “Don’t worry, just keep working hard and maybe you’ll get one next year!”

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But after several years of that, we changed our message, instead emphasizing that hard work is its own reward, and that we are proud of him for his diligence and work ethic. I suspect one of the reasons he gets so little recognition is his personality: He is extremely quiet, introverted, and serious. He has a handful of close friends but gets along with everybody; his school tends to be a bit “clique-ish,” but he is one of the few students who has good friends among both the “smart kids” and the athletes.

I’m not concerned about the awards themselves or about him impressing anyone else. Now that he’s older, he tends to brush it off as no big deal. But I just watched him sit through yet another awards ceremony with a forced smile on his face and tears in his eyes as every one of his friends at the table got a special award from one of the teachers or coaches. He sometimes comments about feeling “invisible” because he doesn’t have the charm and charisma of some of his peers. We’ve tried telling him that sometimes teachers like to reward students for their effort since the students who excel in class already get the reward of good grades. But this doesn’t feel right either, especially after seeing him come home exhausted from a three-hour sports practice and then stay up till 1 a.m. studying.

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After 10-plus years of this, I can’t help worrying that maybe we should be giving him different advice—instead of preaching self-acceptance, perhaps we should be telling him to adjust his personality, so he is a bit more likable? He is headed to college soon, so maybe I should do nothing and let him figure it out himself?

—Mom of the Invisible Man

Dear MIM,

While you’ve given your son some reasonable explanations for why he hasn’t landed on one of these coveted lists thus far, you also encouraged him to aspire to something that is far more difficult to control than one’s GPA or athletic performance … which seems like a recipe for disappointment for a kid who has been able to excel at both of those goals. Have you explained to him that there are kids who will never be able to work nor will themselves into a perfect GPA, nor onto a sports team? That he has not merely outperformed the average high school student, but achieved some of the biggest aspirations that one could have for themselves?

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Might you all have discussed that there are people who will never achieve anything as grand as being voted “Most Likely to Dance All Night” in their high school, and that they, too, deserve an opportunity to experience achievement? And that even among those few folks who manage to check off every box, getting both the trophies and the superlatives, there are struggles and challenges that we don’t know about, that we might not be willing to trade in for our own?

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Focus on emphasizing all the ways that your son does excel in both school/extracurriculars and the good relationships he has within his peer groups. Tear away at the value of the student-voted “honors” without tearing them, or the kids who win them, down, and encourage him to focus not on getting that acknowledgment, but instead feeling appropriately seen by his peers on a regular basis. What does he feel is missing from his social life? How can you help him to come out of his shell and, perhaps, feel more like his authentic self with his classmates? Let a more relaxed, comfortable version of himself become his goal, not inclusion on a list that will mean less by the second as soon as it’s printed. Best of luck to you all.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am in my 30s, but my younger brother is 11. He still sleeps in the same bed as our dad and his mother (my stepmother). This is not new; he’s been there since he was a toddler. I have periodically suggested to my brother or his parents that he needs to sleep in his own bed, to no avail.

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I’ve recently learned that my dad has moved into a guest bedroom because he’s not comfortable with this sleeping arrangement. Is there anything I can do here? Is this as weird or inappropriate as I think, or just an extension of cosleeping or family beds? I’ve never been comfortable with this, but my relationship with my stepmother isn’t great, and my dad tends to defer to his wife about their kid.

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—Worried Brother Trying Not to Overstep

Dear Worried Brother,

You can, and should, be a support system to your father as he deals with a very difficult issue that should have been addressed in a healthier way a long time ago. He is likely to be concerned about your brother and what might be compelling his child to still need that level of parental bonding at this point, as well as how his wife has responded to these needs. And I’m sure it’s very taxing for him to have to sleep outside the bed he rightly expects to share with his partner.

Let your father know that you are sorry about what’s going on, that you want to be as helpful to him as you can, and that you are open to brainstorming ways to improve this situation for all parties. Do not remind him that you’ve long raised questions about your little brother’s sleeping habits; instead, emphasize your willingness to support him and the validity of his feelings. Your dad and stepmother need to get to the root of what’s going on with your brother; therapy would be a great place to start. If you’ve unsuccessfully suggested this in the past, consider how you may otherwise approach the matter. If you haven’t spoken with your dad about professional help, I think it’s very urgent that you do so. Make yourself available to do research for him both on the bed issue and on therapists who are local, take his insurance, etc.—you want to make it difficult for him to see counseling as out-of-reach or a needlessly laborious process, and taking some of the legwork out for him may go a long way. Good luck to you.

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• If you missed Thursday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My little sister’s 10, and I’m 15. She’s always been hyper and had a hard time at school, both with making friends and getting good grades. In this year of online learning, she’s lost the few buddies she did have—who seem to side with the bullies now—and can’t get her work done. I’ve seen her be able to focus really hard when she stays up all night posting online about fandom stuff, but online school doesn’t hook her the same way—she ends up in tears, getting yelled at by our mom every day. Between the schoolwork and being bullied, she’s lost all confidence and keeps saying that she’s just stupid and weird, no matter how many times I reassure her she isn’t. I think she has ADHD, but my parents don’t believe that’s a real thing, and say that she just needs to try harder. She’s started coming into my room at night crying and asking to sleep in my bed, and she’s told me that I’m her only friend. I try to hang out with her and do activities with her that she enjoys, but obviously that’s not fixing anything. No matter how much I try to gas her up, she doesn’t believe me because of all the negative things she hears every day.

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What can I do to advocate more effectively for her with our parents and the school, and how do I help her with the bullying and social rejection that’s destroying her self-esteem?

—Big Bad Sister

Dear BBS,

Your handle confuses me because you certainly don’t sound like a “bad” sister in the slightest—just the opposite. It’s great that you are so concerned for your little sister’s well-being and that you are willing to do what you can to help her feel better. I wish that your parents shared your concerns; if I give them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they have not been made aware of just how difficult school can be for her, both socially and academically, and are assuming that she will do just fine if she tries, which is how I assume they’ve always viewed their own experiences as well as yours.

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Regardless of what has inspired the “ADHD isn’t real” brushoff, I encourage you to be brutally honest with your parents and to explain to them as clearly as you can what you have observed and why it concerns you. They may need you to paint them a picture and help them to understand that what may look like mere social awkwardness and a lack of interest in academics might be something that requires serious intervention.

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If you feel you need an assist, try speaking to your own classroom teacher, guidance counselor, or whoever is your most trusted adult at your school to find out who would be the best person on staff for you to share your concerns with and help you communicate them to your parents. Though I hope they will receive this information and act accordingly, if they do not, your trusted school adult can help you figure out what, if anything, you may wish to say to your sister’s teacher or any other administrator, to continue your advocacy for her.

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Most importantly, continue to remind your sister, every day and all day, that she is awesome, she is capable, and she is LOVED. You can’t replace social activity with classmates for her entirely, but you can (and may very well forever) be one of her best friends, and she needs you so much right now. Be mindful that you are also taking care of yourself as you help to care for her; you, too, are a very young girl navigating a tricky time in one’s life. Be as kind and gentle to yourself as possible. Wishing you both all the best, and saluting you for being a Big Great Sister.

For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

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Dear Care and Feeding,

We have a 6-month-old girl. We started out very COVID-cautious, but with summer coming, mask mandates changing, and no vaccine on the horizon for her for some time, we’ve started to accept that we can’t keep her indoors forever, nor is it desirable to do so (and frankly, we need some breaks, too). We are clear that the need to balance her social-emotional development and time with her family and others comes with the risk of what we believe might be a minor infection for her. We are vaccinated and insist that all adults in close contact with her indoors be vaccinated. We are outdoors whenever possible. Our pediatrician is OK with us having her unmasked indoors with a small “bubble” of close family members’ young kids, vaccinated or not.

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The problem is that my sister has given her son and stepdaughter, both 16, the “choice” of whether to be vaccinated, and they both chose “no.” Our pediatrician says this is the highest risk group for COVID right now due to their impulsivity and the fact that they are often out and about doing things that their parents can’t tightly control. We are thinking long and hard before permitting the baby to be in close contact with these kids. The other kids in our family aren’t all old enough to be vaccinated themselves, so that isn’t an issue. My parents refuse to “exclude” their grandchildren who made this choice, effectively making family hangs a more significant anxiety-producer than they should be for us, and us alone. I am furious, but don’t want to miss out. How do I navigate this?

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—Aunt of Anti-Vaxxers

Dear AoAV,

As you recall, many of the earliest tragic COVID headlines were stories of family gatherings, and I don’t think we should forget that as the virus continues to mutate and as the world continues to get back to “normal.” Though it is unlikely that your child will both catch COVID and be severely affected by it, you are totally within your rights to try and avoid being one of the unlucky few. Being around these kids is not in alignment with CDC guidance, and you should plan your child’s outings accordingly. You may choose to go to some things by yourself, or not at all, or to limit your baby’s attendance to outdoor gatherings—and certainly, you shouldn’t let these kids hold her if they do get the opportunity to share some sort of space in the near future. Do what you think is best for yourself and your child, without apology. Wishing you the best.

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—Jamilah

More Advice from Slate

Q. IVF fundraising party: I have a friend who is 26 and has been married for 23 months. She and her husband started trying to get pregnant right after they bought their house 20 months ago and did get pregnant but had an ectopic pregnancy and she lost the baby eight months ago. Now she has decided to take the step to do IVF because the stress of not getting pregnant is too much for her to stand. My issue is that she does not have the funds to pursue IVF, so she has fundraising parties. She sells home party items and all of the proceeds are going to her treatments. The first one she hosted herself and I went out of obligation. When you checked out and paid she gave you an item total then asked how much extra you would like to put directly toward her baby fund saying the standard was 20 percent of your item total. She then asked each person who would host a party for her fundraising efforts. When I informed her that I would not be hosting a party for her she got very upset and said I was not a good friend because I would not host and I only gave the minimum 20 percent additional to help her have a baby. Am I being selfish or is an IVF fundraising party as outrageous as it seems to me to be?

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