Q: From a university student in France: My brother is 15 years old and has recently moved to China with our parents. Before this we lived in Colombia and he had a very full and happy life. He went out with his friends and spent almost all his time with them, going to the movies, paintball, and football among other things. Now, he doesn’t want to make any new friends, never wants to go out and all he cares about it staying home watching TV and football. He is on the varsity football team but otherwise does not interact very much with other students. He says he does sometimes talk to them but he is not interested in them and thinks everybody is just stupid. I must make it clear that my brother is 15 and is going to finish his first year of the International Bacaleaureate (IB). He has always been exceptional in school and extremely advanced in the sciences and maths especially.
He does aspire to become an aeronautical engineer, but is content with an average and normal job which would be far below his capacities. He watches an extreme amount of Discovery and National Geographic and such on TV, so has an enormous general knowledge. Besides this, there is not much else that interests him. Whenever he is asked why he does not go out anymore or make new friends, he says he has his 3 best friends in Colombia and does not need anyone else.
Our father was always absent, and even when my brother was little, he seemed to be the most effected. Neither of us had a close relationship to out father but contrarily to my brother I am extremely close to my mother. Although my brother never says so anymore, he has mentioned before that he reproached out father for never being there. Now that he is a bit older, they do occasionally talk, but I think my brother has reached a point where the past cannot be forgotten. He continually tells our mother that especially does not want a job like our father (businessman) because he has failed with his family.
We have come to our wit’s end and have no idea how to approach the subject with my brother anymore. He gets irritated and mad when asked why he doesn’t like to do anything anymore. He does still sleep normally like he always has, but he seems to eat much less than before. What has gone wrong??

A: I can’t offer a diagnosis on the basis of a letter but I do have some guesses. I think the old issues regarding your brother’s relationship with your father are important but not really relevant to the current situation. Nothing has changed in that regard. It’s tragic that your father can’t reach out to his son but that is old news. What has changed is where your brother lives.

It’s possible that your brother is suffering from a depression that was started by the move. He is isolating himself and claims not to be interested in activities that used to be pleasurable for him. He isn’t eating as well as he might. The most responsible thing to do would be to have him seen by a doctor for an evaluation.

But it’s also possible that the problem is simpler. Your brother sounds really mad and sad that he got pulled away from his friends and his life. He probably feels resentful that he is only 15 and can’t have more control over where he lives and what happens to him. He’s not interested in making new friends or a new life. He understandably wants his old ones back. He’s too nice a guy to act up. Instead, it looks like he has gone “on strike”. He is quietly showing everyone how miserable he is by refusing to make the best of things.

Sometimes kids just bide their time until they have more say. Your brother might, for example, decide to go to university in Columbia as a way of reclaiming his life. Other kids eventually decide to embrace a move as a new adventure. Still others hold a grudge and put their lives on hold for years.

I hope someone can help your brother understand that his strategy isn’t hurting anyone except him. He’s giving up some of the best experiences of his teen years (and maybe sacrificing his future choices) to make a point. It’s true that he can’t control where he lives right now but that doesn’t mean he is totally the victim of his circumstances. The control he does have is in how he chooses to make use of his current situation. If he is not clinically depressed, there is little you can do about his “strike” except to gently explain it to him and then give him room to think about it.