The three stages of the hihikomori: from the first warning signs to complete isolation


The original Japanese definition of hikikomori requires the subject to be completely isolated for a minimum period of six months.

Personally, I believe rigidly referencing this definition is of little sense and practical usefulness. The hikikomori is, as I see it, is an impulse towards social isolation which can be more or less intense and contrasted more or less effectively by the subject who will react to it based on a series of personal and environmental factors (temperament, familial environment, scholastic environment, social environment, etc.).

The total and prolonged isolation described in the previously cited definition, in nothing more than the final phase of a gradual process, that is to say when the subject feeling the impulse to isolation, decides, for a series of contributory causes, to abandon itself to the impulse ceasing any attempt to contrast it.

Based on my studies, I hypothesised the division of the hikikomori into 3 stages:

First stage

The young boy or girl starts to perceive the social isolation impulse without being able to consciously elaborate it. They become aware of a feeling of discomfort or uneasiness when they interact with other people, finding greater relief in solitude.

In this phase, however, the hikikomori tries to contrast the impulse, continuing to maintain some of the social activities which require a direct contact with the external world, despite the fact the uneasiness pushes them to prefer virtual interactions.

The behaviours which characterise this stage are: the occasional refusal to go to school using any sort of excuse, the progressive abandonment of all "parallel" activities that require a direct contact with the outside world (sporting activities, for example), a gradual inversion of the sleep-wake cycle, and the preference for solitary activities (particularly linked to new technologies, like for example, videogames or the unregulated consumption of TV series on streaming sites).

Second stage

The young boy or girl starts to consciously elaborate the isolation impulse and to rationally attribute it to some social interactions or situations.

It's in this phase where they begin regularly to refuse requests by friends to go out, to progressively abandon school, where the sleep-wake cycle is completely inverted and the near total of their time is spent in the bedroom and dedicated to solitary activities.

Social contacts with the outside world are limited almost exclusively to virtual ones, cultivated by means of the web, especially through the use of chats, forums and online games. A (often confrontational) relationship is also maintained with the parents and other family members.

Third stage

The boy or girl decides to abandon themselves completely to the social isolation impulse and grows progressively further apart even from the parents and relations formed on the internet.

These become for him or her  a cause of unease or displeasure, in a way similar to canonical social interactions.

The hikikomori is immersed in near-total isolation, exposing itself to a great risk of developing psychopathologies (particularly of a depressive and paranoid nature).

The hikikomori isn't static

I care to stress the fact that these phases are not to be interpreted in a rigid manner, but as a dynamic continuum that can cause a periodic alternation between the various stages, long periods of stability,  sudden regressions, fall-backs or even improvements. It is also possible to identify some intermediary sub phases. The important concept, which I pressingly wish to communicate through this article, is that the hikikomori isn't something static, but an unstable condition in continual evolution. 

The importance of prevention

Once the hikikomori has reached the third stage, being able to bring them back to social life is very complicated and often requires a long, intense, and articulate intervention, which could potentially last years.

For this reason it's fundamental to intervene already in the first stage, when the first alarm bells start to manifest. In this phase the parents must try to increase their own moments of communication with their child, trying to deeply investigate what intimate motivations there may be that cause the behaviour of isolation.

The moment in which one realises that these behaviours are in a phase of deterioration and become more similar to the ones described in the second stage, it's important the family members seek immediate support from an external professional, without waiting for the isolation to become fully realised.

Written by Marco Crepaldi
Hikikomori Italia Founder

Translated by Frederick Allen

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