Dr. Barbara Greenberg, clinical psychologist

My son’s friends are excluding him and saying he is boring. What can he do to change their minds?

My teenage son, who I’ll call Justin, just started high school last fall. He recently told me one of his friends there told him he was “hecka boring.” He was really hurt, and I feel terrible on his behalf. He is friends with the popular set in his class, but he says they have started excluding him from their parties and most other get-togethers. Justin seems like a great young man to me, so I don’t understand what is putting them off. How can he get through this and keep his friend group?

Feeling bad for my son

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Dr. Barbara Greenberg replies:

Thank you for your bravery and for reaching out to me on your son’s behalf. Rest assured that you are not the first parent I’ve talked with about this issue.

Boring may mean many things. Since he recently started high school, it may be part of a new behavior. Perhaps he is affecting an indifference he doesn’t feel to fit in with the popular crowd. Let’s agree, though, that popularity is not the goal here. Sadly, popular is often synonymous with exclusionary. That is what I have seen in my practice for over 30 years. Many children suffer from being treated poorly by so-called popular kids.

It is possible that this crowd perceives Justin as boring because he does not want to go along with activities that he considers unkind, such as picking on less popular students. If, upon further conversation with him, this turns out to be the case, he is better off without these friends. He might want to explore sports or activities like drama or the school newspaper to help find a sense of belonging (and better friends).

But it may be that Justin is inadvertently creating barriers to friendship. I have noticed that the teens I have worked with whom others experience as boring have some things in common. They seem to have a pessimistic attitude, one that is experienced very negatively by their peers. They seem to lack curiosity, or at least, to not express it. Additionally, they lack the energy and/or skill to ask others about themselves and the things that interest them.

Sometimes, they actually exclude themselves by sitting apart from peers and appearing disinterested. Or perhaps your son is shy. Maybe he does make attempts to join in conversations but gives up easily if it doesn’t go well right away.

Sometimes a bit of persistence is helpful as long as others don’t experience it as annoying. Social interactions can be challenging, even tricky, as we all know. We neither want to be annoying nor disinterested.

My suggestion is that you have a more in-depth conversation with Justin. See if you can encourage him to approach his peers with a bit of enthusiasm and curiosity. Encourage him to invite a peer (rather than a group) to a fun activity. Such an activity might be a movie, a sports event or maybe even a concert.

If you’re able to observe the interaction, you can help him even more. Be patient. Give gentle feedback. And always check in on his mood to ensure he is not depressed or slipping into depression. Good luck.