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My high school junior almost never leaves his room. I think he does his remote classes, but we barely see him (seriously). He emerges occasionally for food and water and then returns to his lair. I think he stays up very late, probably chatting to friends online or playing video games, sleeps late in the morning, does whatever classwork he needs to do, and then goes back to sleep. How can I encourage him to come out and engage with the family a little more?

Night Owl in New Orleans

Gary Briggs

A New Orleans native, Gary Briggs was a teacher and teacher leader before joining EdNavigator as Executive Director in New Orleans. Gary is especially passionate about supporting young people’s well-being both in and out of the classroom.

I suspect you’re not the only parent out there with a nocturnal teen these days. This is a tough time to be a high schooler, and your son and his peers are doing whatever they can to cope—which definitely seems to translate into some strange behaviors.

A couple thoughts. To start, I think it’s important to establish whether or not this is a Problem-with-a-capital-P, or just a less-than-ideal lifestyle choice that he’ll come out of when times change. Are you concerned about his mental health for a particular reason (or just because of a parental instinct)? If so, you have to intervene, whether he likes it or not.

To get a sense of what’s really going on, consider instituting a family meeting at the start or end of the day. (Don’t panic, you don’t have to force him out of bed early for this.) Try to use this opportunity as a quick check-in about the plan for the day (or a debrief if you do it in the evening). You don’t have to ask directly, but look for clues about what’s on his mind: Is he missing his friends? Feeling hopeless about the future? Struggling in particular ways with online learning? If you’re worried, tell him so and see what he says. Depending on what’s going on, engaging a trusted teacher, his doctor, or a therapist could be a good next step. (Text-based therapy services like Talkspace can be particularly appealing to teens, although insurance coverage varies.)

It doesn’t sound like you’re concerned about his academic well-being, but if that does come up, a quick check-in with his teachers is a good place to start. Is there anyone at school he has an especially good relationship with? Maybe they can offer him a Zoom call to talk about where he’s struggling and what needs to happen to get him back on track. To the extent that you can stay out of this and let him handle it independently, that’s great—as long as you’re in the loop and comfortable with the progress he’s making.

“To start, I think it’s important to establish whether or not this is a Problem-with-a-capital-P, or just a less-than-ideal lifestyle choice that he’ll come out of when times change.”

If you think he’s generally okay, but struggling with the lack of social interaction and developing some wacky habits as a result, there might be a few things you can do to ease him out of it.

What about offering up a favorite meal of his, combined with a family video game challenge or movie night—where he gets to pick the game or movie? (Obviously, this will depend on appropriate-ness for any younger kids in the family, too, but if you want to shake the teen out of hibernation, you might have to give him some leeway.) You might try scheduling some one-on-one time to do something—anything—with him, even a drive to a preferred fast food or takeout spot. Or what about some kind of demanding task that requires his assistance and might make him feel needed or useful around the house? (This could be anything from helping you clean the gutters to helping a younger sib with a challenging assignment.)

Finally, consider conspiring (in secret) with his friends’ parents. Check in with them about how their kids are doing. Is there anything you can do together to help your kids regain some semblance of normalcy as spring returns, likely safely distanced and masked outdoor meetups, or group zoom calls?

If you’ve tried these things and he’s still mostly nocturnal but otherwise healthy, I also think it’s okay to accept that his schedule isn’t ideal right now, but neither are the circumstances. Eventually, he’ll be expected to be in school at a certain (early) hour, and he’ll have to get up, dressed, and out of the house.