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Extreme Social Withdrawal (Hikikomori) in Young People

ESW is the phenomenon of young people who increasingly withdraw themselves from the external world and seclude themselves at home or even retire into their own bedroom or other isolated place.

Extreme Social Withdrawal (Hikikomori)

Hikikomori is a portmanteau word combining the Japanese verbs of ‘hiku’ (‘to pull back’) and ‘komoru’ (‘to seclude oneself’) that is nowadays used to refer to the syndrome of extreme social withdrawal as well as to the people who display this type of aberrant behavior. Adolescents and young adults seclude themselves for most of the time in their parents’ home and no longer are engaged in education or work, thereby refraining from participation in society.

Previous research findings suggest that hikikomori is not solely a Japanese, culture-specific syndrome, but also a global phenomenon.

The ‘need to belong’ is considered to be a fundamental motivation of human beings and can briefly be defined as a basic desire to form and maintain enduring interpersonal attachments and relationships. However, in some cases, young people refrain from society, avoiding the seemingly core need to belong. Social withdrawal refers to the process whereby children and adolescents remove themselves from social life and no longer engage in interactions with other people.

As the authors, Peter Muris and Thomas H. Ollendick discuss in their qualitative review, there are different reasons why this might occur, such as aberrant brain processes, unfavorable temperament, psychiatric conditions, adverse family processes including detrimental parenting, negative peer experiences, societal pressures, and excessive internet and digital media use.

Extreme Social Withdrawal has a very close relation with the excessive use of internet and digital media, which constitutes an important lifeline with the external world and seems to play a role in the maintenance of social avoidance behavior. Another relevant feedback loop that contributes to the continuation of extreme social withdrawal is fueled by loneliness. The increased social isolation will threaten the need to belong and fuel feelings of loneliness, which in turn will increase negative affect and psychopathology, and in its wake per- perpetuate withdrawal tendencies. Even a young person who initially does not suffer much from social isolation—as the person likes to be on his or her own and/or prefers a solitary life—is prone to get trapped in a downward spiral of ever-increasing social withdrawal and its negative correlates, because this behavior is likely to elicit and/or consolidate adverse family processes and detrimental parenting as well as negative reactions from peers.

As the authors of this study mention, a crucial step to support and help, is to reach out to the person who is secluded and to build alliance with the young withdrawn person. It might be a good idea for the parents to make the attempt to build a closer relationship in order to create a more favorable family climate that may also help the young person become more receptive to an intervention. Following this, a closer contact with the withdrawn young person can be established. A non-invasive approach should be taken in which the youngster is invited the talk about himself and his situation with the aim of prompting self-reflection and ultimately self-motivation to change. This also gives the helper the opportunity to become acquainted with the young person, his situation, and in specific the factors that contribute to the social withdrawal behavior. On the basis of this assessment, indications for intervention can be made and eventually the relevant treatment components can be implemented.

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