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Should Parents Push a Shy Teen to be More Social, or Just Let Them Decide?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

Meet The Team >

Teenagers have a thousand and one reasons to be shy. Their bodies, brains, and personalities are changing at a rapid pace. You can see it yourself. One day your twelve-year-old daughter is all about Hello Kitty, the next day she’s all about Avril Lavigne. She goes from Power Puff Girl pink to ripped jeans and black t-shirts with skulls in the blink of an eye. The elaborate dinosaur dioramas give way to a laptop and YouTube reaction videos.

They’re figuring it all out.

Two Types of Shy

And sometimes, part of figuring all that out is going through a shy phase. In general – and of course this is an oversimplification – there are two types of shy teens:

  • Suddenly Shy Teens. These teens had lots of friends in elementary school and middle school. But when they reach high school and the mid-teen years, they do an about-face, and become less social. For a kid who was social in their earlier years, this phase rarely lasts long. They take a month or two to observe, then jump right back in and pick up where they left off.
  • Already Shy But Suddenly More Shy Teens. These teens may have had just a few select friends during elementary school and middle school. But when they reach high school and the mid-teen years, they don’t actively reach out to seek more. They become a little less outgoing than before. Their self-consciousness holds them back. While it’s totally okay to have a small group of close friends, it’s better if this is driven by choice than by fear of fitting in. This type of shy teen can benefit from a well-placed self-esteem boost or two and some social wins. Parents can help engineer both of those

Both these kinds of shy teens back off the social scene for basically the same reason: the changes in their brain and body make them more self-aware, more self-conscious, and more likely to question their identity, their friend group, and who they want to hang out with. While they sort that out, they step back from making new friends and trying new social activities. They keep to themselves for a while. The suddenly shy teen typically bounces back relatively quickly, while the already shy but suddenly more shy teen might take more time. And when they do get back into the social scene, they often find and keep a small group of close friends, rather than a large group of friends/acquaintances.

Do You Need to Step In?

Probably not.

That is, not if your teen is a naturally shy introvert. Then they’re simply being themselves. It may be hard for you to back off, particularly if you were a very social teen with a huge group of friends. Remember, though, your teen is not you, and they’re going to do things – including find and keep friends – in their own way. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with going through high school with a small, tight-knit group of friends – even if it’s just one or two. This is common. Teens like this tend to have a small group of friends who share common interests, such as music, art, computer-related activities (coding, etc.), or gaming.

Speaking of gaming.

Gaming Disorder or SAD?

If your teen is not social and does not have many friends because they’re obsessed with online gaming, that’s something to think about taking a look at. There’s an ongoing debate about whether Internet Gaming Disorder is a real mental health problem. Have a look at our article here to gauge whether your teen may be at risk.

There’s also another possibility: your teen may have Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), an anxiety disorder characterized by intense and persistent fear of social situations. To learn more about SAD and read the clinical diagnostic criteria as described in the DSM-V (the go-to professional mental health diagnostic manual), read our article here.

So – if your teen is not isolating because of a video game obsession or an anxiety disorder, and, more importantly, if they want to make more friends and get better at being social, there are some things you can do to help.

Five Ways to Help Your Shy Teen (If They Want It)

  1. Support who they are. Let your teen know you’re not trying to change them. That is, unless they say something like “I really want to learn how to be more social. I don’t want to be shy.” Affirm for them that being shy is a perfectly fine way to be. Teach them way they become more social is by practicing social skills and learning how to proactively manage the fear and anxiety that comes with some social situations.
  2. Roleplay social situations. Huddle with your teen and find out what makes them nervous. Find out what’s keeping them from being social. Learn what’s stopping them from making more friends, if that’s what they want to do. You may need to teach them how to listen, how to watch for the subtle changes in body language that contain social cues, and how to make small talk. Some people seem to come equipped with a million, easy-to-say social openers, conversation-continuers, or funny icebreakers. The thing is, the people that seem to have all those most likely learned them by being around a gregarious family member. And even if you aren’t a social butterfly yourself, you can help them with the basics.
  3. Shore up their self-esteem. Remind your kid all the amazing things about who they are and what they do. Adolescence can throw them for a loop. Before they hit puberty, they may have been totally at ease with their body, their personality, and their choices. During early adolescence, all this can change, and their self-esteem may lag behind. Your job in this instance is to remind them they’re still that person – just a new version. A new and improved version. Give them back their personal version of swagger and watch them run with it.
  4. Find groups for them to join. You want to avoid micromanaging their social life, but you can find groups for teens that share their interests. From music, to art, to science, to journalism, to sports, there are clubs at school and organizations that specialize in brining like-minded teens together. A simple internet search in your area should be enough to get going. And you can always read some of those fliers that come home from school in their backpack. You can also call the school guidance counselor to find out what sort of extracurricular activities are available.
  5. Break down the risk/reward aspect. Say you have a legitimately shy teen. They may not really want to step outside their comfort zone, enter new social situations, and make new friends. But these are skills they need – to a degree – as they grow and mature into adults. They’ll need social skills in the both the workplace and the world-at-large. You can also explain that the reward of making a true friend eclipses the risk of rejection. It’s also worth a few moments of social awkwardness. As many adults can attest, a good friend is a gift like no other. They can get you through rough times, share the good times, and simply have your back on a random Tuesday. And you never know: they may develop a friendship that lasts their entire life.

Help Them Be Themselves

If you’re worried about your teen being shy, and think they need more friends, there’s something we need to mention that’s not in the list above. It’s a question you need to ask yourself: are they worried about it? Barring anxiety disorders or out-of-control internet/gaming obsessions, you may simply need to accommodate the reality that you have a shy kid with a small group of friends. If they’re okay with that – if that’s actually what they prefer – then you need to be okay with that, too.

Sure, they need fundamental social skills to get them through the day and take a good running start at adulthood. But not everyone was born to be the life of the party. If the basics are covered, then your job as a parent is to find out who your teenager is – this new version of the child you created – and help them be the best version of themselves you can.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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