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‘I barely recognise our 17-year-old son any more, either physically or emotionally’

Tell Me About It: I feel we have lost our lovely child during Covid

Question

Our 17-year-old son’s personality has changed considerably over the past two years. He has finished puberty, has a beard, is about 6ft 2in, and looks like a man in his late twenties. I am ashamed to say that I barely recognise him any more, either physically or emotionally.

I do know that he is still maturing but he has not become the person I expected him to. We have one older son who is now in his early twenties, who was a moody teenager, but this is very different.

Our youngest son was bright, vibrant, sociable and possibly the most popular child in our village; he was a skilled and emerging athlete. He is now withdrawn, and when he does talk, he is rude and obnoxious. He has stopped participating in sport, and no longer hangs out with the local teenagers. He has maintained one close friend that he sees infrequently, and I suspect that when they do meet up they drink and smoke weed.

His grades at school are as good now as they ever were, and I know, only from his teachers, that he has realistic career plans. When I think now about when things changed, I can pinpoint the first Covid lockdown as a particularly difficult time for him.

He defied the Covid restrictions and social distancing at every opportunity, sneaking out of the house and meeting up with a gang of boys and girls, and on one occasion was brought home by Gardaí. This seemed to frighten him, and he took to his bedroom, only leaving to go to the bathroom or to eat meals with the family.

He spent his time playing games online and by the time he returned to school he was a different person, cycling alone on the short commute, ignoring messages and phone calls from his peers and as far as we can see he has removed himself from all social media sites.

He never joins us for family meals and takes whatever he wants from the fridge whenever he wants. It is not unusual to smell food cooking at 4am in the morning. He shouts at both myself and my husband whenever we ask to spend time with him and when his brother has visited, he has threatened him with extreme violence.

I have spoken to our GP and she was dismissive saying that he is just a rebellious and awkward teenager. Perhaps she is right, but I feel that we lost our lovely child during Covid.

Answer

Your worry and loss are clear from your letter, and it sounds as though you are mourning the young person your son used to be. What is particularly troubling from your letter is the threat of ‘extreme violence’ from your younger son to your older son. We can surmise that your younger son is very unhappy and has withdrawn from much of his social life but perhaps he also feels your pride in your older son and by default feels your disappointment in him.

He is only 17, and with the body of a more mature man, he perhaps gets a sense of disappointment from many people as their expectations of him exceed his capacity. What holds him steady is school and his academic achievements and perhaps you could meet his teachers to discover what motivates him and how you might engage more in these successes.

In fact, his teachers might be able to offer you a more optimistic version of life for your son and this might help you to present hope and pride to your son instead of sadness and loss.

The pandemic set many of our young people back in that their social development was curtailed to a huge extent, but their expectations of themselves did not follow suit so now they are presenting with mental health difficulties where none might have existed previously. Anxiety and depression for this age group are very real presentations and many young men express unhappiness via anger and withdrawal.

These expressions mean that they do not get the help that they need and in fact they push away the very thing that might help: compassion, understanding and comfort.

Your son is not alone and there are many male role models that are offering an alternative to the strong, silent stereotype; think of musicians such as Bressie or the many sportsmen who are speaking openly about mental health. Talking to the school about developing programmes that highlight these issues may be a valuable way of proceeding as your son will not feel the sole target of these interventions.

However, at home there is also a possibility of action on your behalf. Firstly, you and your husband could seek help from a family therapist to look at the behaviours and attitudes that underlie life in your home.

It might well be that you need to set some boundaries such as some regular meal times for the whole family or other structures such as a film night. It might be useful for your son to know that you are seeking help as you are struggling to know how to manage your fears, this could allow him to see that seeking support is not a sign of weakness.

Indeed, your two sons could be invited to attend a session with you and your partner with a view to addressing what you need to change – this will put them in a position of advisers, and you might be surprised at their wisdom and sensitivity.

What you know is that your son is suffering, this leads to anguish for the whole family and as the head of this unit you must lead by example and seek help now.

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