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Adolescence and Shyness

With courage and practice, adolescent shyness can be overcome.

It's hard to enter adolescence and not feel shy more of the time.

There are all kinds of new situational discomforts. For example, during early adolescence, effects of puberty create a vulnerability to being teased about physical appearance that can create reluctantance to interact with peers. Or simply comparing themselves unfavorably to others, young people who "hate" how they look can keep to themselves to avoid being looked at by others. Or ill at ease with her or his bodily changes, a sixth grade girl or boy may truly dread publicly dressing for physical education at school. Shyness often arises from painful self-consciousness.

In addition, many adolescents tend to be shyer around adults than they were as children because grownups have now become the operating standard for acting more mature. Now it's easy to shy away from adults because one feels diminished and inhibited in their company.

A common exception to adolescent shyness around adults is the only child who has been socialized to act adult by the company of parents. She often considers herself their equal and has made friends with their friends throughout childhood. Social confidence in dealing with adults is one common benefit of growing up as an only child. However, this comfort with adults can sometimes create another source of shyness—feeling out of step with age mates. "I fit in better with adults than people my own age. Other kids don't get my sense of humor the way older people do."

Even last stage adolescents are not immune to shyness. For example, consider new college students, not knowing anyone on campus, who must go to parties if they want to meet people. Many self-medicate social discomfort with alcohol so they can subdue painful shyness. Drinking enables them to become sufficiently uninhibited and outgoing to survive the evening, hopefully without harmful incident. Over the course of adolescence, shyness is everywhere.

Then there is temperamental shyness, built into one's psychological nature, that seems to combine a lack of self-confidence, limited conversational skills, and social anxiety, all of which result in the avoidance of social interaction that the young person actually desires. Shyness can become its own worst enemy when feeling shy causes the teenager to act shy, which makes feeling shy worse.

Such actions as keeping others at a distance, staying silent, not greeting people, mumbling when spoken to, avoiding eye contact, and electing to sit alone all prevent the teenager from participating in social interactions that they fear and miss.

Then there is how others can interpret a shy person's behavior as anti-social. A student who decided to break out of her history of shy isolation by making and keeping a "new school resolution" was determined to act more outgoing in high school. Successfully doing so, she described with surprise what her new group of friends told her.

"In middle school, they thought I was a snob, can you believe it? They thought I was keeping to myself because I felt better than them! They thought I didn't want anything to do with them when being their friend was what I wanted more than anything!" Acting shy can come across as acting disinterested, superior, or even anti-social.

Temperamental shyness can be costly during adolescence when it becomes the enemy of social growth. Persistently acting bashful in adolescence can limit social functioning in adulthood. So if parents see that their teenager is extremely inhibited—becoming socially avoidant, withdrawn, isolated, or even reclusive—what can they do?

One parental responsibility is to think ahead for a teenager who is more preoccupied with what is happening now. So they can say, "We know acting outgoing can be uncomfortable for you, but making an effort to do so is worth your while. Knowing how to approach people, interact with people, speak up to people, and socialize in groups of people are all skills you will need in the years ahead."

In encouraging this growth, parents need to be respectful of four common fears that often contribute to adolescent shyness.

There is the fear of being known. "I don't like drawing attention to myself. I'd rather just observe what's going on."

There is the fear of being embarrassed. "I don't want to do or say anything other people might consider stupid. I'd rather not participate."

There is the fear of being rejected. "I don't want to reach out and get ignored or be turned away. I'd rather keep to myself."

There is the fear of being speechless. "I don't want to start talking and become tongue-tied. I'd rather just say nothing."

Recovering from shyness usually requires overcoming fear. Parents need to make clear that at some points in their lives most people experience shyness. In fact, they can share what times of shyness were like for them, how they felt, and how they gathered the courage to overcome their fears.

An important distinction to help the shy adolescent make is between using fear as an informant and as an advisor. As an informant, fear tells us we feel endangered, and that can be good to know. But as an advisor, fear can tell us to avoid or run or hide, all of which may make us more afraid.

To recover from shyness requires the courage of counterintuitive decision-making. Although feeling frightened, we must choose to act in non-fearful, confident, and outgoing ways.

Parents need to honor the ambivalence of the adolescent who wants to escape the prison of shyness but fears leaving the protection of that refuge. Then they can give some simple instructions.

"Partly wanting to be more socially comfortable is where the power to act less shy begins. Next is the courage to practice acting more outgoing. This requires asking and answering the freedom question: 'How would I choose to act in social situations if I were not feeling shy?' Now list all the physical, communicative, responsive, assertive, and friendly ways you would behave if you were not feeling afraid. These are some of the behaviors you need to practice. The more you practice them, the less uncomfortable and more accustomed they will become, the more social connection you will experience with others as they connect with you, the less shyness will get in your way. Courage will build confidence, practice will produce competence, and positive responses from others will make your efforts feel worthwhile."

One strategy for helping shy adolescents overcome their fears of speaking up and of engaging in conversation is to tell them that talking together is just one way to establish social relationships. Doing together is another. Each way creates companionship.

For the shy adolescent that doesn't know what to say or doesn't have anything to say, encourage joining a common-interest group where everyone already shares something they like to do, and when they get together the focus is on doing that.

Now the shy adolescent is at a social advantage. He likes and knows about what others like and know about. He can immediately begin playing and participating with them. And he discovers he has a lot to talk about with people who want to talk about the same thing. I have seen teenagers start to overcome shyness by joining a variety of common-interest groups—a sport group, fantasy gaming group, movie making group, volunteer group, theatre group, among others.

Of course when it comes to shyness, the Internet has been a blessing and a curse. It's been a blessing because a shy person who feels voiceless face to face can find words conversing invisibly and inaudibly, developing confidence in verbal fluency by typing out what he or she wants to say. This is also partly why texting is so popular—you don't have to be seen or heard and yet the interchange is virtually immediate.

The curse is that this practice only takes you so far. There is no substitute for in-person, eye to eye, spoken communication where knowing each other is additionally informed by all the non-verbal cues each person is sending and picking up.

This is communication with full, not limited, exposure. This is communication that is spontaneous, not carefully scripted. This is communication with no place to hide. A young person who conducts virtually all of his or her relationships over the Internet may shy away from direct, unmediated contacts with people. By avoiding social discomfort, he or she can create social incapacity.

A number of years ago, a young man described shyness with a descriptor that really struck me: "When you're shy, you're there but you're really not there."

"Like this, you mean?" and I recited that old childhood rhyme: "Yesterday upon a stair, I met a man who wasn't there. I met him there again today. I wish that man would go away!"

"Yes," he said. "Shyness is the man everyone would like to go away."

Next week's entry: Parents, adolescents, and false assumptions.

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