“My daughter never comes out of her room!” writes a Mumlyfe mum. “I have tried everything to engage her in family life, but nothing is working. It’s even worse now that we are all on lockdown. I thought this period might help our family come together, but that has not happened. It makes me feel like we are failing when other families seem to be going really well.
“Lately my girl has even taken to eating dinner in her room. She says she has homework to complete. But how can that be when they are on holidays? At the moment all of school is ‘homework’ anyway. I would have thought she would want some human contact now more than before, but we still barely see her.
Can you help me understand why (a) my teen never comes out of her bedroom and (b) what we can do about it?”
Teens make it a habit to never come out of their bedrooms, let alone leave the house with their family. Let’s face it, many teens probably haven’t noticed any difference since the new social isolation rules came into place. Don’t leave the house? Check. Keep a couple of metres between yourself and others? Check. Use online tools to stay social? You bet.
One day your kid goes from hanging off you (“please, can you give me some space?” we plead) to existing behind a closed bedroom door (“please, I just want to talk,” we plead). We accept this as “normal teen behaviour”, but is it really?
“From a developmental perspective, kids become teens and they are actually designed to begin to separate from us,” says Dr Justin Coulson, psychologist and author of bestselling parenting book Miss-connection: Why Your Teenage Daughter ‘Hates’ You, Expects the World and Needs to Talk. “It’s necessary so they can function effectively as adults. They shift their attachment hierarchy from us to their peers.”
So, it’s quite normal for teens to spend an inordinate amount of time in their bedroom. What they’re getting up to while they’re in there is key to understanding whether it’s okay or not.
Why your teen never comes out of their room
1. A strong need for privacy
This is part of their growing independence. Teens just don’t want us in their business and it’s important to remember that this doesn’t automatically mean they are up to no good.
“Some parents wrongly suspect that if their daughter is closing her door, she must be up to something,” explains clinical psychologist Lisa Damour in her book Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood. “But most teenage girls close their doors to do the exact same thing they used to do with the door wide open.”
It’s all part of growing up and learning to be an adult. Dr Coulson explains it like this: “Teens are kind of like us in that when there is some downtime, they’re happy to be on their own. It’s why we crave some space now and then. We can entertain ourselves, and we aren’t reliant on others like we were when we were younger.”
2. They want to feel in control
When you close the door, you get to rule your own, mini domain. It’s the same reason why teens push back so hard when we insist they keep their room clean. “But it’s my room, just don’t look at it,” they growl.
When you think about it, there’s a lot in their lives that teens have zero control over, but their bedroom shouldn’t be one of them.
If you have a teen who is excessively retreating into their bedroom, it’s worth asking yourself how much control you give them in other aspects of their life. Do they have time away from younger siblings? When they come out of the room, is it into a supportive atmosphere where they feel independent? Or into a nagfest that just makes them want turn back around and bunker down?
3. Lack of awareness
As Dr Coulson points out, a teen not spending a lot of time with their family can simply be a matter of them “not being aware of just how important connection with family is.” Let’s face it, the teen years aren’t known as the “awareness of others” years. Rather, adolescence is all about self-awareness and self-discovery and lots of other self things. Teens might simply be content in their room – on social media with friends, engaged in a good book or being absorbed in another activity – and not notice that they haven’t spent a lot of time with the family lately.
4. They are up to no good
It’s highly unlikely, but not out of the question, that your teen has developed a rampant drug, porn or gambling habit. If you genuinely suspect this might be the case, it’s time to investigate. Changes in their overall health, behaviour and appearance will alert you to something going on.
Start by talking to them about what you’ve noticed. It doesn’t have to be a confrontation – remain loving, calm, supportive and non-judgmental. Depending on how the conversation goes will determine your next actions. You’ll find a helpful step-by-step guide on the Alcohol and Drug Information Service Your Room page. The Family Drug Support hotline, which is staffed by volunteers, is also available 24-hours: 1300 368 186.
If you suspect your child is using, don’t delay seeking help, no matter how scary it feels.
5. They are struggling
Withdrawing from family life might be all or any of the above, but it might also indicate that your child needs help. Other red flags to look out for, according to Byron-based clinical psychologist Mee Hee Douglas, include:
- Lowered self-esteem or self-worth
- Changes in sleeping patterns – insomnia, hypersomnia, or broken sleep
- Changes in appetite – up or down
- Inability to control emotions like pessimism, anger, guilt, irritability, anxiety
- Reduced capacity to feel pleasure, seeming ‘down’ all the time.
If you suspect your teen is struggling with their mental health, reach out to one of the many services available in Australia that can help. A full list can be found here.
More on this: Our teens are in crisis and they need our help
Here’s how you can lure your teen out of their room
Dr Coulson’s strategy for reintroducing a teen to family life is as follows.
- First, have a conversation about how you miss them.
- Second, talk about times that you really do want them around.
- Third, listen to them to understand when they’re fine to engage and be flexible around the times they want space.
- Fourth, make sure they’re still living a full and active, whole life.
- Fifth, ensure they always feel welcome and invited.
Let’s break it down. Remember to take it slowly, especially if your teen literally never comes out of their bedroom. We don’t want to frighten them…
1. Talk about it
Points 1-3 above all indicate that your teen might not realise that they’re sliding away from family life. The easiest way to let them know how you feel is to talk about it. Choose a good time (ie, not the moment when they go into their bedroom, rather, let them settle for a while and then gently knock). Explain that you miss them and would like them to spend more time with the family.
Remember to keep perspective. Starting from an accusation that your teen never comes out of their bedroom won’t help the situation. They will be right when they tell you that’s not even true.
Instead, keep the conversation focused on “I feel” and “I miss” and “I wish”.
2. Make your expectations clear
Be clear on the kinds of things you’d like to do together, so your teen understands exactly what is required of them. It might be something like:
- I’d love to go for a walk together after dinner a few nights a week.
- Do you think you could help me cook dinner so we can talk then?
- It would be great to watch a family movie together, is there a movie you think we’d all like?
- Maybe we could read our books in the lounge together on Sundays?
- Can you help me and your sister in the garden on Wednesday afternoon?
- Let’s do a boxing session in the garage on Saturday mornings.
- It would be really lovely if you’d come visit your grandparents with us next weekend.
Or whatever it looks like at your place.
3. Let them lead
You’ll see from the above point that giving your teen the lead is key to returning them to family life. It might feel like your teen never comes out with you anymore, but they probably find all of the things you used to do together unexciting and naff. Which doesn’t make a parent feel good, but reality is what it is. Instead, ask them to come up with a list of things they would be happy to do as a family. Meet them there. You might find yourself playing a family video game tournament or watching movies together. You might find yourself heading out to an escape room, or to play laser tag. You might be surprised at how much you love the things your teen suggests.
4. Give them some wiggle room
If you’ve got certain things you would like your teen to participate in, give them space to do it their way.
What would suit them? What do they really hate doing? What compromises can you make together? Maybe they’ll come visit the grandparents as long as you keep the visit to an hour max. Or whatever suits them better. Will you come to the beach with us if you don’t have to swim? If you could bring a friend, would you come to the party on Saturday? I could show you how to cook your favourite dinner?
5. Add some non-negotiables
Here’s where you agree some rules around time alone in their room. Your rules will be different to our rules, but it might look something like:
- Have you been active for at least an hour today?
- Have you been outside for at least an hour today?
- Have you done something with your siblings today?
Your own rules might include having the door open at all times, surrendering screens at certain times, or following a set number of chores. Depending on your family and your teen, you might try breaking up the day into time with family and time on your own. Remember to set fair consequences for not following the rules.
We’ve also had chats about the kinds of things the kids are doing in their bedrooms. Being on screens the entire time isn’t okay. Instead, we encourage them to draw, play an instrument, make something, read something and plan something. This is done on a trust-basis. Depending on where you’re at with your own teen, you might need to build up to a closed door.
6. Keep trying
Keep talking to your teen and never stop trying to entice them back into the fold. As much as it seems like they don’t want to be with us, they’d be devastated if we stopped trying to include them. Every now and then, the answer will be an unexpected yes!
Do you have a teen who never comes out of their room?