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Entering university without any friends

Published: October 10, 2013 | Last Updated: June 29, 2023 By | 3 Replies Continue Reading
A mom worries about sending her 17-year-old son off to school without any friends.


Hi Irene,

I have a dilemma. My son is 17 and in his last year of school. He has a couple of friends there but no one whom he socializes with after school or on weekends. We have lived in our area for five years now after moving here from living abroad and he has never made any friends locally. (The local boys are all into football and he isn’t sporty at all.)

He only ever ventures out with his father and I, and I can’t get him to join any groups or get a job or do any volunteer work. My dilemma is, next year he will be going to University. I would like him to try to live away and gain some independence. He seems open to it—but with reservations. My husband is reluctant as he thinks it may be too big a step for him.

I fear for his future unless he can get some kind of friendship group established. His both sets of grandparents are elderly and he has no cousins close in age. What if something happens to us and he has no one?

We love having him around and he has a very good heart with good morals and manners. It has started to really worry me lately as he is starting to refer to himself as socially awkward. Do I insist he go ahead and try to live in at the University? I can’t sleep at night because I’m so worried about the future and blame ourselves as parents. We are very insular ourselves.

I have a couple of good girlfriends but my husband let himself drift away from his friends years ago as we are very happy together as a couple (in our late 40’s) I feel that we found each other so it should be possible for my son to find friendship and even love. My question is…How do I persuade him to get out in the world?

I would be grateful for your help and advice. Thank you.

Signed, Gwen


HI Gwen,

It sounds like you have a loving son who has a loving family. Since your move was during your son’s middle school years, admittedly, it can be difficult for a young person (particularly someone who is shy rather than outgoing) to integrate into the social thread of a community. His peers may have a long history together from primary school.

However, it sounds like you also sense your son is “awkward” and that, perhaps, this has interfered with his ability to make new friends and fit in. He may have social anxiety, or lack the social skills he needs to converse and relate to his peers for other reasons.

Since both you and he think he has a problem, and no one is quite sure exactly what it is, it might be useful to speak to a counselor in his current school who could meet with him and offer him/you a professional’s sense of exactly what is holding him back socially. If you feel more comfortable, an evaluation by a mental health professional could also be arranged to take place outside of school.

If he feels comfortable living in a dorm away from home this could be a good experience for him although it’s normal that he, like many young people, would have some reservations about taking this first big step towards independence. I can also understand your concerns as a parent. A few thoughts:

  • You might want to carefully consider the characteristics of the University he would be attending, making sure it is someplace where he thinks he would feel comfortable. For example, he might prefer a smaller school over a larger one. Prospective students often have a good feel for the type of setting that feels right for them.
  • You might want to encourage him to consider a University that isn’t too far from home to make it easier for him to come home between sessions and during vacation periods.
  • While you don’t want to hover over him, you will want to remain supportive and check in on him at school periodically to see how he is doing.
  • Before he leaves homes, you might want to suggest that he also check in with someone at the University so he is placed in a dorm situation that is supportive– perhaps, one with not too many people in the same suite/room.
  • Introducing him to a counselor at the student health office at the University will give him a life preserver if he feels uncomfortable and needs on-campus support. 

You have a year to work with your son to find a strategy to work on these issues and to help increase the likelihood of his University experience being a successful one both socially and academically.

Don’t waste time blaming yourself or your husband for your son’s personality. Much of that was probably hard-wired. It sounds like the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree and your son is lucky to have parents who are sensitive to his needs.

Hope this helps.

Best, Irene

Some prior posts on The Friendship Blog that discuss shyness, social anxiety and friendship:

Other relevant information:

Mind Matters: Anxiety in the Workplace (on the website of the American Association for the Advance of Science)

Information from the National Institute of Mental Health on Social Anxiety (also called social phobia)

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Comments (3)

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  1. Ken says:

    From my experience getting out of the house, like for example going to a university, can really kick-start someones social life. With that said Irene brings up a valid point. Looking for a university that is relatively close by can help since it adds another security net if things don’t work out as planned.

    All in all, great article!

  2. Sheryl says:

    I think no matter who the child is, parents have anxiety (and so do the kids!) about leaving home. Hopefully all will turn out okay.

  3. Amy says:

    Middle and high school can be quite difficult for kids who March to the beat of their own drummer, especially if the school is big on sports and student athletes and that’s not your interest. I’m curious as to whether he has expressed concern or dissatisfaction about his social life, or if this is primarily your concern for his current and future life.
    Either way, ask him open ended questions about his social goals. “Tell me about your ideal social experience in college.”
    You’re quite correct in assuming developing socialization skills will be harder as he ages, finishes school and gets into the career world.
    Have his teachers or counselors ever expressed concern with this social skills?”
    While he’s still in hs, you might encourage him to invite friends over to the house, but at his age he may balk at that idea. If there’s something material he wants, you can bargain with having him try an activity for a certain length of time to earn the item—like a young adult sticker chart without the stickers. I wouldn’t suggest doing this as a routine, but a one time incentive.
    Irene makes an excellent point about choosing a university to suit his personality, as much as for academics. I’d strongly encourage him to find a school with academic dorms, where he might find more students who share his common interests. I do diverge from Irene by thinking he almost needs to begin college in the dorms, the same time as all the other students, because all freshmen will have the shared experience of living alone for the first time and many will share his same anxieties. Have him agree to the first semester and have another discussion at the end of the semester. Of course, if this is a disaster, which I don’t think it’ll be, you can allow him to commute if the school is local, but don’t be too quick to have him come home weekends (at least not for the first month), because he sounds like he needs more of a confident, gentle push than many of his peers.
    Remember that the college experience will be an excellent opportunity for both growth and independence, and it’ might be a harder adjustment, at first, for you than him.

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