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‘My son has no problem mixing with girls but has difficulty interacting with other boys’

Ask the Expert: My son, who is 12, has spoken about feeling his life is not worth living and can be very negative in outlook


My son is just 12 and has difficulty interacting with other boys and doesn’t have a male best friend. He has no problem mixing with girls his own age and gravitates towards girls.

He is not into team sports and is adamant that he does not want to get involved (not even kicking a ball with his dad). He does gymnastics and enjoys that.

He doesn’t have a lot of self-belief. He panics and can become very anxious at times. He has also spoken about feeling his life is not worth living and can be very negative in his outlook.

He is starting secondary school this September, and I worry that, as he comes closer to going to secondary school, whether he will cope with everything that it brings (making friends, bullying, exam stress). He is going to a relaxed mixed school with boys and girls (his choice) so hopefully that will help. I want to know what we, his parents, can do to help and support him and how we can best prepare him for secondary school.



While of course there are many advantages to being involved in team sports such as GAA, rugby or soccer, some children are simply not interested in them. This should not be a problem, as there many other ways for children to engage in healthy physical pursuits, gain the discipline of training and being involved in a fun activity with others. However, there is a dominance about certain team sports in society (such as those that involve a ball!) that comes with a huge pressure to participate and which makes children feel bad when they don’t. One has to only look at how much time is devoted on the TV and in the newspapers to the coverage of ball sports, when there is almost none on other sports such as martial arts or gymnastics.

In addition, there is almost no societal attention placed on the many other healthy pursuits that are important to many children, whether this is dancing, music, drama, looking after animals, community groups and so on (this is a very large list). Parents can easily get caught up in this pressure and feel embarrassed if their child does not enrol in the local GAA club or persist with the team ball sport promoted by the school. Children pick up this “disappointment” from their parents, which can make them feel bad about their abilities, impacting their self-esteem.

My message to you is to not worry about your son’s lack of interest in ball sports and instead celebrate the activities he does like and is already involved in, such as gymnastics. Make him feel great about what he is already doing and the abilities he already has.

Spend time exposing him to other healthy activities, whether organised through organisations such as the Scouts or more informally such as baking or creative crafts at home. Follow his interests and passion when you introduce him to new activities. Look for the things that give him enjoyment and spark his interest. You want to help him find his passions and talents, where he can be creative, learn new things and make friends. This is the best way to help reduce his anxiety and negative self-thinking and to help him feel more confident and content.

To help him prepare, I would suggest you make contact with the school to find out more about the school and about the range of extracurricular activities it provides

Similarly, I would suggest that you don’t worry that he is more comfortable mixing with girls rather than boys his own age and instead support him to make friends with whoever he is naturally drawn to, whether they are boys or girls. Unfortunately, once again, there is pressure in society (and from peer groups as well as adults) for childhood friendships to be organised along strict gender lines when this does not suit many children. Listen carefully to your son about who he would like to spend time with and support these connections in the usual ways by reaching out to the other parents, arranging shared activities and so on. He is most likely to meet prospective friends participating in passions and activities he loves such as those we discussed above.

It is great he is going to a mixed school and that you have carefully listened to his preference about this. Hopefully this school will give him opportunities to develop lots of new interests and to make different types of friends. To help him prepare, I would suggest you make contact with the school to find out more about the school and about the range of extracurricular activities it provides, about their policies for inclusion and how they plan to induct and look after first years so they have a good experience. Some schools organise summer camps or special enrolment days for first years – make sure you and your son are around for these. There may also be an opportunity to make some initial contact with other families with a child starting in the school, which might help.

  • For more information on building children’s self-esteem see my book, Bringing Up Happy, Confident Children, or have a look at my six-part series in The Irish Times

If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article, please text HELLO to 50808, or contact the Samaritans at free phone 116123 or email

  • John Sharry is Clinical Director of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. See for details of online courses.