11/20/2013 05:33 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Could Something Be Wrong? My Son Spends All His Time in His Room

My 17-year-old son rarely goes out, has never gotten his driver's license, and spends almost all his time watching TV or listening to music in the basement (in the dark). He has one friend, but that boy has an active life so isn't available very much. My son does well in school but does not seem motivated toward going to college. There are lots of mental health issues in our family. Could something be going on?

Whenever parents asks me the question, Could something be going on, I am inclined to believe that they already know the answer.

It is hard to admit that our child may be struggling; we want so much to think that they're happy and well. And sometimes we assume the worst when our child is just going through a rough patch. But if your instincts suggest something is wrong, I urge you to take steps to find out.

Here are my thoughts:

• Make an effort to connect with your son in a way that doesn't make him withdraw even more. In other words, don't confront him with comments like, "What's wrong with you? Why are you spending all your time in the basement when it's a beautiful day outside?" I assure you, this will not go well!

• Make it safe to come out of hiding. What does your son love to do? If he's into music, ask him to play you some of the tunes he's been listening to these days. If his only interest is TV or video games, join him there. The first step to establishing a connection is to meet him where he is, letting him know that you simply want to enjoy his company, without interrogating him.

• After strengthening a sense connection, casually invite your son to chat about what he's up to these days. Avoid asking probing questions; if talking with you in the past has led to a barrage of unwanted questions or advice, he will shut down. Your goal is simply to listen with interest, so he discovers that it's safe to open up. Brief conversations that end before he feels attacked or invaded will lead him to reveal more the next time.

• Don't label or diagnose. Your son is likely to dismiss your concerns if you tell him you think he's depressed or that there's something wrong with him. While he may indeed need counseling, avoid setting him up to feel that he needs to be fixed. Most teens are already painfully insecure, make them highly defensive if they suspect their parents think that they aren't okay.

• Look for mentors. Some teens are painfully shy or socially awkward with their peers, retreating to their cave simply because it's easy. Is there a trusted family friend or relative who your son feels close to? Someone other than you may have better luck drawing your son out to engage him in outside activities like hiking, shooting hoops or just heading to a coffee shop to hang out with somebody other than mom and dad.

Many teens go through difficult patches. Adolescence is an introspective, often melancholic phase of life. But isolating in the dark for an extended period of time is definitely a red flag. Whether your son is depressed, using substances, or tangled up emotionally, something seems to be going on that deserves your attention. Trust your gut; if it's telling you that something is wrong, seek professional help.

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach, and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting. To learn more, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter.

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