Does Your Son Hide in the Safe Social Confines of Gaming?
Social anxiety walks alongside ADHD for many boys who take refuge in the virtual world of gaming as a safe space for interacting with friends. Learn what this means during social distancing, and how to help your son reach out even when he’s quarantined.
Social anxiety in boys with ADHD is both common and commonly misunderstood.
Through my work, I regularly see social anxiety in high school boys. Those who fit the hyperactive/impulsive profile or struggle with emotional regulation tend to “quiet down” around age 16. They figure out how to make and interact comfortably with other kids their age. Boys with an inattentive profile and/or a learning disability like slow processing speed may present with social anxiety because they find it difficult to keep up with the speed of conversations.
Regardless of ADHD profile, social anxiety in boys is profoundly misunderstood for several reasons:
- It is often misperceived by parents and mental health professionals as difficulty with social skills, however social anxiety and social learning challenges (difficulty with socials skills) are distinct. One is a learning issue; one is not.
- Boys do not talk about social anxiety with other boys. Typically, they do not have the language to describe social anxiety, thus they have no context for understanding or communicating it.
- Many boys with social anxiety retreat into a virtual world of online gaming or coding because it is safer and easier than possibly facing rejection or judgment from their similar-age peers. Parents often dismiss this behavior as “normal” because, in our culture, many boys of all ages spend a profoundly excessive amount of time gaming and in front of screens.
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Boys with social anxiety may have “school friends,” or guys with whom they eat lunch at school but do not see or communicate regularly with outside of school.
So, what does this mean in the time of social distancing? It means that these “school friend” relationships may fade away if your son avoids reaching out to his school friends due to his social anxiety. Granted, some of this school friendships will re-start once school starts again. But many will go down a level on my friendship pyramid from “school friends” to “classmates” because other boys may perceive your son’s lack of communication as a lack of interest in them.
At its core, social anxiety is a fear of judgment by others. When I work with boys who had more of an impulsive/hyperactive ADHD profile in childhood, I often find that they want to avoid the painful feelings of being ostracized that they experienced when they were younger. Boys who present with ADHD and processing issues fear that other boys are going to judge them for not being able to keep up with a conversation (which I have never found to be accurate.)
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Here are some strategies you can use if you are confident that your son has social anxiety:
1. First and foremost, please do not try to diagnose your son with social anxiety. Do not try to be his therapist or social skills coach. When parents try to take on these roles, they often learn that their kids are not interested in listening to their well-intended suggestions. For the sake of your relationship, please stay in your lane. He needs you to be his mom, dad, or grandparent — not some other role for which you are not trained.
2. Explain to your son that, during this time when school is closed, it is important for him to maintain some regular contact with his school friends. If he does not, he may feel awkward around them when school returns. By maintaining communication, he will be helping to renew these school friendships once he returns to school.
He can do this in whatever way feels comfortable for him, however I do not recommend solely communicating through video games as the conversations often do not stray away from the game. You can refer to last weeks’ article for some suggestions.
3. The way a person learns to manage their anxiety is by pushing through anxiety-producing situations. Many parents allow their sons to avoid social interaction because they do not understand that avoidance of anxiety-producing situations further enables anxiety. My suggestion is to require (not suggest) that your son reach out to a few classmates. Acknowledge that this may feel uncomfortable if he is resistant to reaching out and explain that everyone feels uncomfortable in social situations at different times in their life. If he says that other boys would think it’s weird for him to reach out, remind him that he cannot read minds. Given that everyone is home a lot right now, his school friends would probably welcome his reaching out, despite what he may think.
I have had the privilege of helping quite a few boys push through their social anxiety, and their parents are always grateful to see their likable son being socially connected with his peers. You can certainly help with this process. While your son may not express his appreciation for your help, it will show in his feeling more socially confident once he returns to school.
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Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW is the facilitator of the ADHD Dude Facebook Group and YouTube channel.