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My 17-year-old does outstanding academic work in high school. She ranks #3 or #4 out of 160 students. She sings in school and church choirs and has taken part in game-show type activities at the school.

The problem? She has no work experience and very little social life. In response to my queries, she has mentioned applying for a cafeteria job, but the summer is well underway and she hasn't done it yet. She says the website is down but hasn't wanted to apply in person or try applying elsewhere.

She appears to have a few friends at school and occasionally gets invited to a birthday party, but shows no interest in going out with them or inviting them to our house. She interacts and jokes around with her younger siblings but doesn't seem to do much other socializing.

In response to my query, she has said she wants to go to college but as far as I know has done no research on schools at this point. She also told me she wants to learn to drive this summer but to my knowledge has done no prep work or studying for a learner's permit.

Another big problem is that she is very cold to me and has been since age 7 or 8. I mean it's very hard for me to have a simple convo with her. I mostly get grunts or monosyllables. She almost never initiates a talk with me unless she wants a specific favor like using my printer or something. I don't know if she's mirroring (actually exaggerating) her mom's behavior or somehow feels intimidated by my accomplishments or what. Her big brother is somewhat of a nut case and I asked her if he had hassled her or abused her somehow, but she said no.

I'm starting to get really worried about her. I also see signs of delayed development in her. She's a finicky eater. She'll do things like pick toppings off of pizza that she doesn't like, or take the beans out of burritos. The kind of behavior you see in much younger kids.

Any advice or insights about this situation would be much appreciated.

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    if she is that good in school, what do you expect her to learn from a cafetaria job? I think just talking to her about what she wants to accomplish might be a start. Be carefull not to talk in terms of "you can never get a job if you study x". – Batavia Jun 20 '18 at 17:10
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    A lot, actually-- real world skills, organization, dealing with demanding customers and managers, not to mention making money and budgeting and so on. I agree it's a good idea to start w/her goals, but she's not sure about those yet. – Carsten1 Jun 20 '18 at 18:04
  • I was kind of like this in High school as well. (Minus the good grades, haha. I was too focused on teaching my self python and C# to care about what letter grade I received in English). She's clearly smart, so she has options. I wouldn't worry too much. By cold do you mean distant and aloof, or do you mean somewhat hostile/ short with you? – Jason Desjardins Jun 20 '18 at 20:13
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    By cold I mean, it's very hard for me to have a simple convo w/her, I mostly get grunts or monosyllables. She almost never initiates a talk with me unless she wants a specific favor like using my printer or something. – Carsten1 Jun 20 '18 at 20:58
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    It is possible that you are an extrovert and she is an introvert. Extroverts are energised by spending time with people, and dislike solitary pursuits. Introverts are the opposite. huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/… – Paul Johnson Jun 21 '18 at 20:36
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All the things that you mention seem fairly minor. My husband picks off the pizza toppings that he doesn't like. There's nothing childish about not liking a particular food. Labeling this as "delayed" behavior is neither accurate nor helpful.

As to her not socializing, it may be that she prefers to focus on her studies. This is a condition that many parents would envy; usually it's more difficult to get kids to stop socializing and work harder at their schoolwork.

Her lack of ambition may be more problematic. Have you tried partnering with her in order to get these things done? What about having her pick out, say, one of three colleges within a few drive hours from home, and taking her on a road trip to visit the facilities. Once she sees what it has to offer, she may get excited about going there. If she says she doesn't care which one, then do a little research yourself and pick one which has a beautiful campus and a helpful administration. Call and ask them about tours, I would recommend asking for a student tour, for two reasons. One, if she has trouble making friends, this might be an opportunity for her to interact with a helpful peer. Second, you want to give her the opportunity to view the experience with an eye to separation. Maybe you could meet her after the tour at an eatery on the edge of campus at a particular time.

She's a good student and a smart girl; all she needs is to take an interest in her future. You can't "make" her do this, all you can do is guide her into a opportunity that may catalyze her enthusiasm.

  • Thanks, Francine. I realize that this is in some ways a wonderful problem to have, I would be even much more distressed if she were going at all hours and neglecting her school work. – Carsten1 Jun 20 '18 at 17:01
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    Still I feel it's time for her to spread her wings a bit-- unless she's going to be a full-time academic, and even then I think she would need to develop a lot more social and diplomatic skills than she seems to have at present. – Carsten1 Jun 20 '18 at 17:11
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    I sympathize with that hope, which is why I would strongly urge you to help her spread her wings in the direction of college :) I had no social life and virtually no friends in high school, mostly because I felt I had nothing in common with them. It wasn't until college, presented with a greater range of clubs and activities and causes that I found others who I could bond with. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Jun 20 '18 at 17:59
  • Ok. But would you agree that a teenager should get at least some kind of work experience before starting college? – Carsten1 Jun 20 '18 at 23:07
  • Oh, absolutely. That would be ideal. I was just thinking that if motivation was a problem it might be easier to get her excited over the college experience than the grind of work. Is there anything she is passionate about? Even if it was something that wouldn't pay (volunteer work) it would be beneficial to get her out there doing something that helps her focus outwardly. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Jun 22 '18 at 17:27
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These are two separate issues.

First of all, having only a few friends is fine. You worry if your kid has none, and that's not your kid's problem.

Being a picky eater is not a problem either. Some people really are much more sensitive to textures and tastes they do not like. Does her doctor think she has signs of delayed development?

Lack of something to do is a different matter. Of course your kid should have a break, but she should find something to do during the summer (something that makes money unless there is some other big benefit). I'd restrict the phone until your kid makes progress on that front; submits an application, makes some phone calls, something. Same thing on the college front...make her at least think about what kind of college she wants to go to, make a list of 5 to apply to in the fall.

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Let's do the easy one first.

I... see signs of delayed development in her.

Being particular about food isn't a cognitive problem. There is a developmental stage where most kids become picky, but there are plenty of adults who don't stop feeling that way. Different genes code for different food experiences (e.g. thinking cilantro tastes like soap or enjoying chilis); different gut flora likewise. Parents will usually have similar experiences to their kids thanks to similar genes and a similar environment; finicky eaters often force themselves to adapt as a social requirement; but there's nothing wrong about it until it affects her job or social life. School's fine, and you're in charge of how much you really care that you covered the entire pizza with something she doesn't like.


Then the really hard one.

Another big problem is that she is very cold to me and has been since age 7 or 8.

You sound like a loving, concerned, and intelligent father. Giving you all the benefits of all the doubts, I think it very likely that you have fair and objective reasons for thinking and saying things like '[she might feel] intimidated by my accomplishments' and 'her big brother is... a nutcase'.

You might have a problem with how you come across. Consistent & just administration based on impersonal reasoning is an unrealizable ideal in running countries; within families, being your children's parent has better outcomes than pretending to be one of their friends. Boundaries and consistency are important. That said, if she and her mother are somewhat cold towards you without any objectively negative behavior on your part (which seems to be the case), I think the problem here could be that they feel you should be their partisan. When logic and fairness dictate against that and you go the other way, they instinctively feel less loved, less valued, and less safe, which makes them more closed... even when they can't argue with your logic.

That reticence is part and parcel of being a teenager. They're thinking about all kinds of things their parents would have a problem with and they don't want to be punished or judged; hell, good kids like your daughter don't even want to be disappointing to mom or dad. Still, if it seems your daughter is treating you as an unyielding judge or expectant taskmaster to be avoided and you don't like that, it might be helpful to go out of your way to say and do things that establish how firmly you are on her side against the world.

I'm certain she knows that; you still want her to feel the same.


She has no work experience and very little social life.

Given the dynamic above, it may be that

  • She knows how important school is. It already is her job and what she needs to take seriously. It's what's going to establish her in life. It's also what you really care about. Skipping or falling behind in other bits of life might be 'concerns' but they're not problems. Even if you're starting to feel that they are a problem, school is still the bigger and more important one.
  • She may be shy or she may be thinking rationally. Assuming her heteronormativity, she doesn't love any boy in her class, so they're not marriage material, so they'll leave for different colleges and it can't be too serious; unserious hook-ups are more trouble than they're worth. She likes some girls in her class but they're mostly concerned with unserious business like hook-ups; they'll all leave for different colleges anyway; and hanging out with the people she knows so far is more time consuming than it's worth.
  • She may be lazy or she may be thinking rationally. Leaving aside the structural economic and social reasons fewer and fewer teenagers are getting summer jobs at all, summer jobs for unskilled teenagers are generally unpleasant and pay poorly; she may not be sure what her future career will be, but she can be sure that her part-time job one summer won't affect her résumé at all (you feel differently about a helpful skillset being developed, but the connection between being a cafeteria lady and a teacher, scientist, lawyer, or other well-regarded profession is nonobvious to your daughter); and she'll be unenthusiastic about needing to work so long as there's nothing she really wants to buy that is such a luxury that her parents won't provide it as a matter of course.

Seems like she's intelligent enough that she may be seeing all of that pretty clearly. She may feel like, apart from doing well at school, she's spinning her wheels waiting for college and the 'real' parts of life, whether professional, romantic, or social. She may not be wrong about any of that. You could simply stop paying for certain things to force her into employment but, unless the family really needs the extra income, it's probably more productive to challenge her into learning situations, where she develops skills you both agree will be important for her to have. That might be customer service or fitness or material that will help her ace the AP tests to skip intro classes at college. It might just be that she goes out with some friends X times a week, just to be more comfortable doing so. But, even if she isn't sure what she wants to be, she probably has some things she wishes she could do or do better and you can look for common ground there, as you share your wisdom about what is or isn't as important in adult life.

If it's too hard to have such important talks with her at first, take Ms Taylor's advice and work with your wife to steer her towards productive experiences, with the aim of making them more enjoyable and less an additional duty imposed on top of her already excellent schoolwork.

  • lly, thanks for your comment. It's a fair point that a cafeteria job may not be a great resume builder. My concern here is with a general "Failure to launch": she shows no interest in traveling, even visiting nearby museums, doesn't want to go out and ride a bike, go to a restaurant, or anything. She mostly sits at home and uses the Internet, I'm not sure what she's doing exactly, watching YouTube, things like that. – Carsten1 Jun 21 '18 at 13:53
  • @Carsten1 Yeah and I absolutely hear you about her disinterest in thinking about college while vaguely expecting going to some college will be the thing that will ensure everything will work out. I absolutely regret not been more careful when my dad passed on paying for the Ivy that accepted me & just took the first school that offered a free ride, mucking around in philosophy classes I could've audited on my way to an MBA; she's clever but may end up doing something similar plus going in debt (or asking you to) for the privilege. – lly Jun 21 '18 at 14:24
  • That's why instead of asking about anything vague or building up too much pressure, I'd suggest looking with your wife for some specific skillsets she wishes she were better at and nurturing those as just a more productive time killer, even if those skills're as nebulous or non-work related as going out more or composing and photoshopping good selfies. She doesn't want to talk much with dad (got it) but she's hopefully not really apathetic about all aspects of existence or entirely devoted to memes. She's a bright and successful student, after all. – lly Jun 21 '18 at 14:28
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It sounds like a complex situation with more than one factor in play. It may be worth both your and her time to see a physician, if only to rule out biological issues.

By itself, the behavior described is not unusual for a 17 year old. Moody teenagers have been a stereotype in anecdote and fiction for as long as there were teenagers to talk about. What piqued my interest in this question is the observation that this is a continuation of a pattern of behavior that goes back 9 to 10 years.

In my opinion, which along with $0.50 will get you a really bad cup of coffee, the coldness going back to mid childhood is unusual. That, coupled with the observation that the brother is "a nut case" is a flag for attention. Autism is roughly 90% hereditary, and two siblings exhibiting possible neurological issues is worthy of attention (but not necessarily worry).

Not too long ago, my wife of over 20 years observed that it was almost impossible to form normal emotional bonds with me (much like your daughter). That led to a series of medical exams in which we discovered that I was both autistic (born that way) and had a brain injury (too many years competing in martial arts).

As part of the diagnostic process, they also tested for PTSD, brain injury, vitamin deficiency, hormone levels, anemia, and numerous other issues that are readily treatable, some with little more than a change in diet.

In my case, there is no treatment, only awareness of my strengths and limitations, and where they have their roots.

I have had good careers and am nearing retirement age. In retrospect, my medical condition has had as much of a positive effect as negative. The lack of emotional engagement makes me completely unsuitable for management roles, or roles requiring empathy. However, the ability to hyper-focus that goes with that meant that I would be called on to resolve complex technical puzzles that escaped my neurotypical peers.

Edit to respond to OP's question in comments:

Depending on where you are at, the process may unfold differently. In my case, we were most concerned about possible brain injury. Based on my history, my family doctor referred me to a neurologist, who ordered a battery of blood tests (Anemia, Vitamin B 12, testosterone, and a plethora of others I don't remember), an MRI, and an in-depth psychological assessment that covered different aspects of memory, problem solving, mathematics, and use of language.

Based on relative proficiency in the various aspects of the psychological tests, they were able to not only identify, but distinguish between the effects of the autism and the brain injury.

In addition to these tests, some practitioners also use functional imaging technologies such as fMRI, SPECT and PET scans, which give different views into how the brain functions. While these can be informative and potentially useful, I have come to the tentative conclusion that interpreting functional brain scans is still closer to reading tea leaves than it is to a solid diagnostic tool for most practitioners.

As functional brain scans become more mainstream, there is an increasing awareness that "autism" is a symptom, not a condition in and of itself. Up to six very different types of brain activity have been associated with autism, and we still don't know what they mean .

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    I think you may be on to something about autism, it occurred to me the other day that she may have a mild form of autism but couldn't find anything similar or any confirmation online. It's interesting that you have this and are self-aware about it. Can you tell me more about the medical tests used to diagnose this? – Carsten1 Jun 21 '18 at 13:49
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    @Carsten1 You'll probably have better luck looking or asking over at the Psychology SE, but fwiw it can burn through some good will taking her for the tests unless she feels she's hitting problems she needs help coping with. You'd want to read up and look for signs it's not just introversion/ being a teenager. – lly Jun 21 '18 at 14:16
  • Then again, if you've got the money for it and can find someone she feels comfortable with, it's always good for anyone to have a supportive 3rd party to talk to. G-d knows my relatives in psychology and law have helped their share of people. – lly Jun 21 '18 at 14:18
  • Thanks, lly, good links. I do think what I'm seeing matches a number of the criteria in that DSM5 doc. If you care to post links or contact info for your relatives in psychology, I'm interested in finding good people who can help diagnose and handle these issues. – Carsten1 Jun 21 '18 at 15:14
  • At this point, all we can do on SE is refer you to your family doctor. Medical advice is strictly out of bounds on SE. We sometimes a little slack in parenting because so many parenting issues are quasi-medical in nature, but diagnosis and recommendations are definitely out of scope. – pojo-guy Jun 21 '18 at 16:55
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She sounds ready to go to university. If she is a top performer in school, then socializing might not be fun, since the people available to hang out with are just not her type. In particular if you are from a small town.

Not wanting to work is totally fine - I am in my 30s and still do not 'work' (I have gotten a PhD and done several years as researcher in academia, but that's a different situation compared to working in 'real' life).

Also, at the university, she is more likely to meet people with the same interests, and same level of academic performance.

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let her be

She has her reasons for being the way she is. And you need to accept her for the person she is, I think one major thing that could help her is traveling. Giving her a small budget after school to take a gap year and explore the world a bit if she interested in this. Through traveling people learn the most useful skills that they will be able to carry with them for the rest of their life.

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