Mental Health

My kid won't socialize, won't exercise, won't...

Delaney Ruston, MD
April 20, 2021
Girl lying on couch looking depressed

Pre, during, or post COVID, it’s equally challenging for us when our kids and teens resist what we know will help them feel good, help them grow as a person, and so forth. Think, trying out a new activity, taking a walk with a friend, or getting some physical activity, just to name a few. 

How often do you want to scream, “Get off TikTok and do something for gosh sake!!” 

Many parents tell me about their anxious feelings related to all the things their kids are unwilling to do. This dilemma feels more daunting right now because our kids have gotten less of so many things — while getting so much more “consuming” type of screen time (i.e., the passive, entertainment type). 

How do external rewards fit into trying to get our kids to do the things they aren’t doing? Don’t rewards just crush internal motivation? And is it bad if we, parents, do some social engineering on behalf of our kids? 

Today I address these questions and suggest ways you might help your loved one shift into a slightly higher gear.

Before going further, I want to say that I am not talking about kids and teens who are already doing things and living pretty balanced lives — and yet we still want more for them. So before reading on, consider checking in with yourself to see if you are operating from your own anxiety — I know this is the case for me at times. (This is where our support networks can help us figure out what concerns are more about us versus what are worries for our kids.) To this point, I was just listening to an interview by Jonathan Fields with Anne Lamott where she recalled how her friend gave her temporary tattoos that read, “It’s not them.”  Lamott talked about how she puts one on when she finds herself  “...trying to control other people. It’s really not them.” 

So assuming that we suspect they need our help, let's get to work.

Are incentives OK to use? Yes, at times! 

When our kids were little, we gave them rewards like M&Ms or stickers for things like using the potty. And then they learn to do it, they have the habit, and they don’t need our reward — this is perfectly fine. As a species, we learn from rewards.

Giving rewards to help older kids get over the hump of trying something new can be effective, too. Psychologists often work with families of kids struggling to figure out incentives to get the child past stuck feelings and situations.

Here is the key

Once you get past the initial hurdle of doing something (which extrinsic rewards can help with), the internal rewards often kick in. For example, doing a short online cooking class can elicit a sense of mastery, which feels great to the brain. And, even gaining a little knowledge, not necessarily mastering something, gives us dopamine. This feeling becomes self-reinforcing. In Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER, the 15-year-old boy, Ishmael, talks about forcing himself to learn and then master the Ukulele, which helped him surface from his depression.

And yes, entertainment screen time can be used as a reward at times. Let’s say your tween wants to start doing some type of movement but is just not doing it. Perhaps you discuss whether having a bit more screen time would help motivate him or her to move more. Maybe you sort out a new way to pair media time with movement, like taking a walk listening to a funny podcast.  

By the way, I am not saying we should give rewards for all things. For example, when parents try to offer kids money for getting good grades, this can backfire. If a child is not doing well in school, it calls for the situation to get fully examined, which is a topic for another day.

Social engineering

Another issue is how much do we maneuver things without revealing all the details to our kids? Psychologists sometimes advise parents to do a little “social engineering” to help their kids make connections — and they let the parents know that they don’t always have to reveal all the details to their children.

For example, a dad may ask an older teen to come over and start throwing a baseball with his tween son twice a week. The dad does not need to tell his son that he asked the teen to come to play or that the dad is paying a little money for his time. If the child asks the parent, I suggest telling the truth, and your child will likely still want to participate in the arrangement. 

So now, given these points about rewards and social engineering, let’s take on some common areas where kids may not be engaging:

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My kids won’t socialize

You have a kid who does not make plans to see friends in person or rarely talks on the phone with friends. The first step is to get the most accurate picture possible; more communication may be happening than you think via online communication. And believe me, many youth say they do indeed have some satisfying times talking with friends online.

My teen daughter has not had a lot of socializing with peers these days. She is doing a gap year before college starts and for part of it has been working full time in a pre-school. Meanwhile, most of her friends are away at college. 

I know that now and then, she enjoys spending time with certain adult friends of ours (the ones that do a great mix of asking her caring questions and sharing a bit of their lives). Now that the weather is better for being outside with people, I have had friends come over that I know Tessa likes chatting with. 

If your kid is not excited to spend time with the adults you’ve invited over, ask if they will do it for just 10 minutes. Often once they get into a conversation, they’ll stay longer. And if they don’t, you should still internally celebrate that 10-minute win! It was face-to-face time, and that counts. 

Talk about the qualities of good friends

Consider talking about good friends you have and what you really like about them. These types of conversations can get their wheels turning about how they may want to connect more with a friend. The other day, I interviewed two teen boys and asked them about what qualities they like in their current main friends. I had such fun hearing them talk about this. One of them said how happy he is every day to see his friend in one of his classes, even though they have to sit far apart and wear masks. The other boy excitedly expressed that he has a musician friend who “always works to bring people together with his music.” 

Ask an older teen — like a nephew or a friend’s teen —  to call your kid

The teen could call and just ask your child how they are doing during COVID. Over the years, I have engineered such types of connections, and 90% of the time, it has worked wonders. We have had to move the kids a fair amount over the years, and those are times when a little engineering can really help. 

Set up a Zoom reunion with friends

Maybe pick someone from college who has kids the same age as yours and ask your kids to be with you for part of the reunion. Give a time limit so it won’t feel daunting. I just did this with my two college roommates, who each have a daughter the same age as mine. We had fun telling stories about college days and asking the teens to talk about their wacky moms. (**One caveat, make sure you discuss what is off-limits to bring up with your friends beforehand!) 

Fund a dinner out

For a tween who has not met in-person with friends for a while, consider an incentive like splurging for a picnic, or dinner out. You might consider saying, ”I will pick up your friend, and you can get take-out to bring to a park to eat, and then I’ll drive you two home.” 

My kid won’t exercise

This is particularly common for the tween and teen years. Experimenting with ideas to see if something could work takes commitment. Remember, you can only do so much, and if they still don’t want to do much movement, you might have to keep saying to yourself, “not yet.” 

Here are some ideas that you may never have tried: 

Reset expectations

I know one mom who works out daily and whose teen daughter is doing almost no exercise, and the mom gets more and more internally frustrated. The mom said she was trying to keep her frustration inside, but sometimes it bubbles out. She realized she needed to remember how her exercising would plant a seed in her daughter’s brain and that maybe she’ll start doing it sometime in the future.  

The mom also started talking more about how walking, even a short walk outside, is fantastic. Eventually, the daughter started walking more. Victory! 

Alternate who leads

Consider suggesting that together you do a 10-minute workout two times one week and that each of you will choose the workout. When it’s your turn, consider picking this one. I bet they will be pleasantly surprised that it is a class led by teens! 

Pay your kids to teach you

Almost every kid can improvise a stretching or old-fashion school gym calisthenics class. See if you can buy four 10-minute classes from them. Then make sure they get scheduled on the calendar. What is so fantastic about this is that their feelings of self-efficacy get boosted. 

Try activities from the left field

As a family, do something completely new — and make sure there is a lot of laughter.

I love this free, 15-minute beginner Bollywood dance class. If no one has done this type of dance, you are all starting at square one, perfect! How about a fun 10 min. Jump roping class? 

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My kid will not take up a new activity

The key here is exposure, exposure, exposure. Having them try things, even for short times, helps get them to break through their Brain Barrier. 

Ask friends

Try asking neighbors or friends if they have hobbies they do with friends and if you can borrow them. For example, does one of them do beading? Maybe you can borrow some of their beading tools and see if your child will do it with you? How about something with a glue gun — it’s so much fun?

Darts, darts, darts

My favorite new hobby is playing darts (and for little kids, get the velcro ones). How about buying a dartboard to play as a family at least once a week. And make it competitive with some type of prize for winners. This might indeed get your teen to start practicing it more. The other night my daughter had a friend over, and we all played darts, and it was a great way to laugh with her friend and get to know her a bit. Plus, there are a ton of games to choose from, so it keeps things fresh. 

Pay a mentor

One of the greatest things my father-in-law says he did as a parent was to hire a graduate student from the university where he worked to take his sons on outings in the neighboring outdoors. The grad student was a geology student, so he taught the boys about all sorts of things about the land. It was so impactful that my brother-in-law ended up getting a geology major in college!

Maybe you could find a couple of other parents to work together to find a college student to take your kids into nature. Or, even lead a fun project over Zoom like an art or building project?

Here are some questions to get the conversation started:

If doing physical activity on your own has been hard, have you thought of partnering with a friend to try to do so?

  1. Have you ever considered signing up for some type of race to have something to be training for?  (For the past 3 years, my friend and his 13-year-old son do an annual race swimming from San Francisco to Alcatraz Island.) 
  2. Which friends of mine are your favorites to talk with?
  3. Is there any type of exercise or hobby you have wanted to start but haven’t but feel like some type of incentive could help?
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Available now - Parenting in the Screen Age, from Screenagers filmmaker Delaney Ruston MD

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Mental Health

My kid won't socialize, won't exercise, won't...

Delaney Ruston, MD
April 20, 2021
Girl lying on couch looking depressed

Pre, during, or post COVID, it’s equally challenging for us when our kids and teens resist what we know will help them feel good, help them grow as a person, and so forth. Think, trying out a new activity, taking a walk with a friend, or getting some physical activity, just to name a few. 

How often do you want to scream, “Get off TikTok and do something for gosh sake!!” 

Many parents tell me about their anxious feelings related to all the things their kids are unwilling to do. This dilemma feels more daunting right now because our kids have gotten less of so many things — while getting so much more “consuming” type of screen time (i.e., the passive, entertainment type). 

How do external rewards fit into trying to get our kids to do the things they aren’t doing? Don’t rewards just crush internal motivation? And is it bad if we, parents, do some social engineering on behalf of our kids? 

Today I address these questions and suggest ways you might help your loved one shift into a slightly higher gear.

Before going further, I want to say that I am not talking about kids and teens who are already doing things and living pretty balanced lives — and yet we still want more for them. So before reading on, consider checking in with yourself to see if you are operating from your own anxiety — I know this is the case for me at times. (This is where our support networks can help us figure out what concerns are more about us versus what are worries for our kids.) To this point, I was just listening to an interview by Jonathan Fields with Anne Lamott where she recalled how her friend gave her temporary tattoos that read, “It’s not them.”  Lamott talked about how she puts one on when she finds herself  “...trying to control other people. It’s really not them.” 

So assuming that we suspect they need our help, let's get to work.

Are incentives OK to use? Yes, at times! 

When our kids were little, we gave them rewards like M&Ms or stickers for things like using the potty. And then they learn to do it, they have the habit, and they don’t need our reward — this is perfectly fine. As a species, we learn from rewards.

Giving rewards to help older kids get over the hump of trying something new can be effective, too. Psychologists often work with families of kids struggling to figure out incentives to get the child past stuck feelings and situations.

Here is the key

Once you get past the initial hurdle of doing something (which extrinsic rewards can help with), the internal rewards often kick in. For example, doing a short online cooking class can elicit a sense of mastery, which feels great to the brain. And, even gaining a little knowledge, not necessarily mastering something, gives us dopamine. This feeling becomes self-reinforcing. In Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER, the 15-year-old boy, Ishmael, talks about forcing himself to learn and then master the Ukulele, which helped him surface from his depression.

And yes, entertainment screen time can be used as a reward at times. Let’s say your tween wants to start doing some type of movement but is just not doing it. Perhaps you discuss whether having a bit more screen time would help motivate him or her to move more. Maybe you sort out a new way to pair media time with movement, like taking a walk listening to a funny podcast.  

By the way, I am not saying we should give rewards for all things. For example, when parents try to offer kids money for getting good grades, this can backfire. If a child is not doing well in school, it calls for the situation to get fully examined, which is a topic for another day.

Social engineering

Another issue is how much do we maneuver things without revealing all the details to our kids? Psychologists sometimes advise parents to do a little “social engineering” to help their kids make connections — and they let the parents know that they don’t always have to reveal all the details to their children.

For example, a dad may ask an older teen to come over and start throwing a baseball with his tween son twice a week. The dad does not need to tell his son that he asked the teen to come to play or that the dad is paying a little money for his time. If the child asks the parent, I suggest telling the truth, and your child will likely still want to participate in the arrangement. 

So now, given these points about rewards and social engineering, let’s take on some common areas where kids may not be engaging:

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