Let's Talk Tween

Information and insight about kids ages 8-12 (the "in between" years)

Simply Shy or Socially Overwhelmed: Defining the Difference

Helping tweens tackle the social realm.

There is a difference between being shy and socially overwhelmed.
There is a difference between being shy and socially overwhelmed.
The tween years are often synonymous with feeling awkward. Tweens take on many new tasks. They have a greater awareness of the outside world. As such, the social realm becomes a system they need to negotiate. At a time when their bodies are changing and growing, self-confidence is often very vulnerable. Tween egocentrism encourages thoughts that the whole world is always watching them. Hormonal changes can lead to emotional sensitivity. Coupled with the physical changes they are experiencing, tweens sometimes feel like strangers in their own skins.

For many tweens this can mean they feel less than confident about putting themselves out there socially. If a tween is a ‘slow to warm’ child, or naturally shy, he may feel less than socially savvy. While some of his friends may be easing themselves into the social mix, he may be comfortable and more inclined to take a step back from the social scene. The questions parents often ponder, is “what does this reaction mean?” and “what should I do?”

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Unfortunately the answers are rarely clear and, or simple. In addition, due to the difficult transitions tweenhood often entails, it is not uncommon for even the most confident kids to seem socially reticent or even shy.

The tween years are all about negotiating changes. Development during these years tends to vary greatly from child to child as well as within each child. This means that kids achieve different levels of physical, cognitive, and emotional maturity at different rates.  One tween may be easily organized and focused academically, but seem emotionally sensitive or socially unaware.

There is a big difference between feeling shy or even socially self-conscious than feeling socially overwhelmed or incompetent. Tweens who feel overwhelmed often present as socially incapacitated. These kids tend to isolate. Their anxiety can lead to more severe reactions such as panic attacks when put in social situations. A socially anxious tween may have difficulty leaving home and/or attending school.

 A shy tween may tend to hang out in the background. He usually has at least a small group of friends. While he may hang back in more social situations, he still attends events and activities. A shy tween may not be the loudest child in the bunch, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t enjoying himself.

The best way to determine whether a tween is socially overwhelmed is to simply consider whether or not his behavior regarding social situations prevents him from carrying on with his daily responsibilities. If he is able to attend school, participate in outside activities and events then it is unlikely that his lack of social savvy is overwhelming.

Parents want the best for their children. The majority of parents encourage their children to actively participate in their surroundings. It is not uncommon for parents of a shy child to worry that their child’s tendency to take a step back could result in difficulties down the road. These parents sometimes push their introverted child to participate at times when their tween may feel more confortable in the role of an observer.  The question then becomes what should parents of a shy tween do to encourage extroversion. The simple answer is that they should not necessarily do anything. The real question such parents should perhaps ask is “what does it matter?” In reality, their tween may be quite content to stand back from the crowd rather than in the midst of it. Some kids enjoy being solitary.

The tween years can be difficult. Certainly parents want their child to feel confident and capable. No parents want their child to feel like a social outcast. Shy children are commonly quiet in new situations, or in situations in which they do not feel as comfortable such as large crowds. When among those he knows however, a characteristically shy child is capable of becoming the life of the party, although he would probably choose not to.

Social competence is a task that can be difficult for many tweens. There are a few strategies parents can use to help build their tween’s self-confidence and self-esteem. Parents should provide opportunities for their tween to engage in activities he enjoys. An independent child who enjoys time alone to read for example may enjoy participation in a book club or writing class. If a tween’s interests are not obvious, the tween years are a good time for a child to try out different things before honing in on the activity, sport, or hobby he enjoys the most. Kids with common interests tend to come together. Inclusion in an enjoyable activity therefore, naturally encourages kids to make connections.

In reality, the social realm is an area in which even the most confident tween can feel self-conscious and unsure. Whether a tween is an introvert or extrovert, the true mark of social savvy is a tween who feels comfortable and confident about his connections no matter how small is his cirlce of friends.

Jennifer Powell-Lunder, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and parenting expert specializing in work with tweens, teens, young adults, and their families.

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