Archive for Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Advice for teens & parents

For their own good, even the shy should try to meet new people

November 14, 2006


John: If I could have a super power, it would be the ability to detect and avoid my own awkwardness from miles away. There are many reasons people are shy, but I think the most prominent one is because they are afraid of looking awkward in front of their peers. They are afraid they will say something stupid and lose face in front of others. Meeting people requires an investment of time and confidence, and some people don't want to risk rejection.

For a long time, I was too afraid to meet new people and told myself I was "content to be shy." But it started to get to me. For one, it's a whole lot more fun to share your pleasures with others. But what I didn't realize then is that as you get older, it becomes more and more important to make contacts. People have an amazing diversity of talents, and if you know more people, you'll have more resources to pool. For example, during my time as a reporter for the school newspaper, I would often have to conduct original research. Knowing my classmates helped me find ideal persons to interview for my stories.

I want to clarify here that being an introvert is not the same as being shy. Being shy means being afraid of social interaction. Being introverted means roughly that you try things out within yourself, verses an extrovert who tries things on from the outside. For example, an introvert might clarify thoughts in his head before speaking in a conversation; an extrovert clarifies his thoughts by speaking them. Even though I like meeting people, I would label myself an introvert.

The best way to overcome shyness is to get involved. Two clubs in particular changed the way I interacted with people: theater and debate. Participation in plays allowed me to meet a huge number of people, and the experience of performing on stage helped me become confidant in front of crowds. Debate taught me to think rationally and to express myself clearly. Debate and theater can do wonders for your public speaking (which is supposed to be our worst fear), but if these aren't your cup of tea there are plenty of other activities to get involved in. If you can find your sweet spot in one of the dozens of activities offered at school, you'll be well on your way to becoming a more outgoing person.

Dr. Wes: John's got it going on here. What he didn't mention is just how common this problem is among teenagers. I just dealt with it this morning and several times over the previous week. Shyness - or social anxiety, as we call it in psychobabble - appears in childhood and continues into adulthood, but rarely is it more of a problem than in adolescence. This is because teens need to be social to get along on a daily basis at school, work and play. Even introverted teens need some small set of social connections to feel good about themselves.

As John suggests, some elements of shyness involve a self-perception of awkwardness and incompetence in social relationships. Unfortunately, this creates a downward spiral as follows: The shy person isn't sure that he really belongs, so he's reticent to get involved with someone. As a shy girl put it to me just the other day, "I feel like I'm intruding on other people." No amount of talking someone out of this perception seems to work. Friends and family may express great adoration, but the shy person can't process that information. It just doesn't make sense to them that others see them so differently.

In response, the shy person pulls back, causing others to get frustrated or feel alienated from them. They are seen as "aloof" or distant rather than just awkward. This, in turn, makes others feel uncomfortable, and they actually begin to consider the shy person as socially incompetent. This makes the shy person feel worse, and (you guessed it) they respond by feeling more awkward and incompetent, which fuels the cycle anew.

Some shy or awkward kids are certain others are talking about them in a negative way. Of course, in junior high and high school, that's plausible, which only gives more energy to their fears. In fact, the difference between these kids and everyone else seems to be in how much they really CARE. The shy ones worry deeply about it, while more confident ones blow it off. Others fear that they have said something really embarrassing and inappropriate. I've seen kids obsess over this for hours, calling me late at night to run something by me just so they can go to sleep and stop thinking about it. Rarely are these fears founded, but that doesn't make them any easier to deal with.

At it's worst, social anxiety has to be treated with medication. This may sound like a mighty drastic solution to a common problem. However, when you're having so much worry about these issues that you can't go to school - or doing so makes you physically ill - it's really time to nail the problem. The longer it goes on, the harder it is to deal with, leaving young adults feeling almost like they did on the first day of seventh grade. For less serious cases, family and individual therapy are often sufficient to change problematic thought patterns in both the teen and the parents.

The reality is that one's feelings of shyness won't change. They are a part of who we are and how we respond to the world. What can change is how we think about those feelings and how we respond or choose not to respond to them. For shy kids, a good therapist can be very helpful in redirecting those thoughts and getting them back on track.

- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. John Murray is a Free State High School senior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to All correspondence is strictly confidential.


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