Q: Dear Dr. Wes and John: Your article discussing the benefits of social networking, in my opinion, was right on target. However, the problem is how do parents of introverted, shy children get them out of the house and into the world? As a parent of some shy children I would love some tips on how to get them to overcome their uncomfortable feelings and get out there in the world. Keep writing; I will keep reading.
A: Wes: At the risk of oversimplification, there are basically two kinds of "shy" teens. It often helps to figure out which category your kids fall into. The first group includes extroverts who would really like to have more friends but lack social skills. Starting from a young age, these kids tend to say and do the wrong things at every turn, causing others to become less and less interested in befriending them. The research tells us that it takes classmates less than a day to pick out these kids and to respond to them, and the response isn't usually helpful. Some of these kids have learning disabilities, Asperger's or other development disorders or ADHD. Some are gifted intellectually but not socially. After a number of unpleasant social interactions, many decide it's too hard and become increasingly reclusive, essentially giving up on social interplay. Later in adolescence they may tend to congregate with other kids who don't have and don't expect others to have well-honed social skills. These kids are challenging to work with for parents, teachers and therapists because they struggle with the core elements of change - dialogue, coaching, guidance - all of which are social behaviors. They either can't follow advice, or they don't see the need.
The ideal treatment for these kids is to be in some form of supported play or, when they are older, have supportive adult and teen friends who constantly work with them to clarify and correct what gets them into trouble socially. Youth groups in churches that practice tolerance of psychological issues may be ideal; however, you really need to shop carefully to be sure that the fit is a good one. This constant attention tends to be a labor-intensive process, but the long term pay-off is worth the effort.
The second group includes kids with various levels of anxiety ranging from fear of public speaking or performance to an inability to go to school, or sometimes even leave the house. These kids might like to have more friends, but making them is such a fearful experience that they don't even get out there and try. This one sounds more like your kids. Unlike the first group, these kids do pretty well after they have established relationships. People like them and enjoy their company. It's getting them past the anxiety of introduction and relationship development that's difficult. This actually gets harder as they get older because, if you haven't noticed already, teen culture is generally less inclusive than that of childhood and even less tolerant of differences. You also have to work with them in maintaining their relationships - not because other kids shun them but because they may be so self-conscious that they worry incessantly about having said something wrong to a friend or having embarrassed themselves without knowing it.
Ideally, parents should help young teens protect friendships developed in earlier years through sports, church or school. It is particularly devastating for these kids to be moved from school to school or to go to a different high school than their junior high peers. For the anxious kids, rebuilding these friendships is such a daunting task that I've seen many young adults who recall such incidents as the lowest points in their lives - worse than divorce or the death of a pet. Julia and I will be discussing that very issue in a future column this fall. So do keep reading.
John: My previous column centered on what teens can do to make more friends. Trying to get someone else to make friends is quite a bit more challenging. You can point and prod your children in the right direction, but they are the ones who must make the leap.
If they haven't already, suggest that your kids join a club. Whether it's swimming, bowling or Dance Dance Revolution, any club will help them interact with other people and make friends with similar interests. But quickest way to overcome shyness is through a public speaking activity such as debate or theater. Performing in front of crowds is terrifying the first time, but I've seen the experience transform a number of teens. Many of them only joined because their parents coerced them, but voluntarily continued the following year. I myself could barely carry a conversation before I joined theater. But within a year I was bustling with confidence and buckets of friends.
Alternatively, you can bring friends to your children. A common myth held by teens is that you can only "hang out" with people with whom you are already acquainted. Actually, sharing experiences with people you don't know is a great way to break the ice. Keep reminding your kids of potential friends and events, and they'll get the hint. ("Why don't you ask Sally if she'd like to see the new play?") You can even offer to help your kids throw a party. The process can be exhausting, but it teaches you about the dynamics of how people interact. Remember that there are a lot of other shy kids who want someone to spend time with. They just need to be sought out.
Most importantly, support your children. Teens are wary about talking to people who might reject their friendship. A supportive parent can soften this risk. Talk to your daughters about their social life, and make sure they have another adult to speak with. This is especially important if your teen falls into the first category of shyness. Even if we don't admit it, we teenagers want to be understood by our parents. Discussing our insecurities can help us move past them.
Next week: John and Wes' travel log, and observations on summertime for families.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.