Does Your Teen Suffer From Shyness?
As a teenager, my daughter, Noa, never socialized. Like many shy teens, she told herself that studying was much more important than a social life. When friends invited her to parties or picnics she would prefer staying in her closed room with a book, and she would find different excuses to explain her absences.
This aloofness became a problem when one of her peers turned to her once and asked: "Why are you such a snob?" Only then she realized that her self-defeating shyness was misinterpreted by society. She was perceived as arrogant, when the opposite was actually true. Noa was trying hard, maybe too hard to interact but this only escalated her discomfort. She often told me, "Mom, I just do not know what to say most of the time. If I talk to someone I will say the wrong thing and embarrass myself. I discovered it is better not to say anything at all."
Her distress worried me a great deal, but I kept hearing the common consolation that she "will grow out of it." I felt, however, that without taking active steps and seeking help, this kind of social phobia may worsen over time.
Shyness is a great disadvantage for preteens and teens. Our society favors bold and expressive kids, while shy kids are perceived negatively. Those who share the stress of shyness find it difficult to change by themselves. Many times they feel like cripples wondering what feeds the aloofness.
While there is no actual external barrier to keep them from joining the group, they feel hindered by anxiety. Even mild shyness might lead to school phobia, social anxiety and emotional stress. The good news is that parents can offer lots of support and help by using strategies that will help children learn to play, share, cooperate and negotiate.
Shy kids are easy to recognize in class and in social groups. Although they appear to be quiet and calm, they are anxious because of their constant fear, embarrassment and insecurity. In social events, a shy teen wants to shrink and escape. When circumstances force him to stay with the group, he is tormented by worries that he is being judged. No matter how much he tries to conceal his unease, he may express it through one of the following signs:
- Reluctance to speak in public. A shy teen will not raise his hand in class to read his homework even if he has done an impeccable job. In open discussions, he would rather be quiet. A shy teen will rarely disclose his opinions and beliefs.
- Gaze aversion. Shy teens find it difficult to make eye contact. If they do talk to someone, they will lower their eyes to the ground. They may also try to conceal part of their body with other teens in the group, with a wall or with a nearby pillar.
- They rarely initiate phone calls, make invitations or make social calls. Their favorite activity is spending most of their time in their private room, where everything is familiar and secure.
- When a teacher turns to them and invites them to participate in public discussions, they speak in a low voice and will barely be heard.
- Their anxiety levels increase substantially when a social event like a party or a class picnic approaches.
- Initiating a simple dialog with someone they like in class seems laborious, strenuous and sometimes even grotesque.
The Biology of Shyness
Shy teens might tell you that a great part of their unease lies within their body's reactions, which seem beyond their control. The typical physiological symptoms of shyness originate from the amygdala, a gland in the brain which is in charge of recognizing danger in our surroundings. According to Lynne Henderson, Ph.D., and Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D., founders of the Shyness Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., physical signs of shyness might be:
- Cold sweat in the palms
- Palpitations and accelerated heart rate
- Dry mouth
- Speech dysfluencies: lisping, stuttering, truncation and confused talk, usually in a low voice
- Restlessness, nervousness and fidgeting whenever someone is trying to make contact
- Feeling faint or dizzy, butterflies in the stomach or nausea
These unmanageable and embarrassing symptoms worsen the situation, causing the child more embarrassment.
How to Help
Parents can be a great support to a shy preteen or teen. Being aware of how he feels and showing empathy for his stress is your best strategy as a parent.
A very common mistake is to call your kid "shy." This suggestive saying will eventually push him to fit the label. Being pushy and pressing him into going out with friends is another common faux pas. Such a strain yields nothing but unease, insecurity and anxiety.
Patience, listening and gentle encouragement are useful tactics when approaching a shy child. Explain to her that developing social skills is similar to playing a musical instrument. Practice makes perfect. The more she exposes herself to society, the more she will feel confident and relaxed.
Bernardo Carducci, Ph.D., director of the Shyness Research Center at Indiana University and the author of the book Shyness: A Bold New Approach (Perennial Press, April 2000) advises taking the following strategies:
- Teach your kid to take it one step at a time. Spur him to start with small parties or events that include only two to three participants. If this is too much for his current ability, he can start meeting privately with class members that he perceives as less threatening.
- Always assure him that taking emotional risks is necessary to gaining social skills and freeing himself from the limiting shyness. However, never push him to do things or activities that he perceives as unendurable.
- Shy teens tend to drink a lot at parties. Relying on alcohol is their way to decrease shyness. It may relax their social inhibitions, but alcohol treats the symptom rather than the cause. Clarify this point for your shy kid.
- Direct your child's attention to his body language. Subliminal cues like voice volume, gait and posture convey a strong message to his environment. Show him how to talk more slowly and loudly, to lift his chest, to pull his shoulders down and back and to walk slower in order to convey a message of confidence.
- Shy teens have excellent imaginations. Advise your teen to use this mind power to envision positive scenarios. If he is about to ask a girl for a date, encourage him to visualize the meeting as a success.
- Small talk is a great tool to lessen shyness. Embolden your child to talk to anyone he meets in daily life: the postman, the cab driver or the patient sitting next to him in the clinic.