As soon as she exited the bus, I could tell she was upset. Her shoulders sagged with the weight of her backpack and her face scanned the pavement as she walked to where I was standing. As she got closer, her eleven-year-old eyes looked up at me and I could see the tears dotting the corners of her eyes. I smiled sympathetically and, as I opened my arms to hug her tightly, I said, “Today was tough, huh?” She shrugged and nodded. “It’s just so hard to talk to other people, Mom,” she sniffed into my shirt as we stood on the corner. My heart ached and my eyes filled with tears as yet again I wondered how to help my painfully shy tween daughter navigate the complicated middle school social scene.
From the time she was small, our daughter has been shy. Often overwhelmed by large groups and chaotic family events, she would retreat into sullen silence as she tried to take in the noise and become comfortable in her surroundings. But over the years, especially in elementary school, her shy nature rarely caused an issue in the classroom. Perhaps because preschool and elementary teachers are more focused on sharing and appropriate social interaction, our daughter had the benefit of having her shyness bridged by kind teachers willing to help her be included on the playground or in the lunchroom. And young children are particularly forgiving of a child who needs a few extra minutes to warm up to their classmates.
But once my daughter hit the tween years, the game changed and, more and more, I’m realizing that shyness can make the agony of puberty and the teen years even more difficult.
School activities are more focused on socializing and tween girls can be cliquey and mean spirited towards a girl who isn’t easily chatty and bubbly. More often than not, my bookworm daughter is content to hide behind the pages of her favorite book rather than step out of her comfort zone and socialize with her peers.
And as an outgoing, outspoken woman without a shy bone in my body, it’s excruciating to watch her struggle with what I know often feels crippling to her.
As any survivor of middle school will tell you, the lunchroom is fraught with hierarchy and confusing social rules. It can be painful and lonely for a shy tween or teen to find their footing in a crowded lunchroom. On that day she came off the bus upset, my daughter had yet another lunch where she felt anxious because her shyness prevented her from feeling confident enough to initiate a conversation with her class. As we’ve worked through some of her insecurities, we’ve come up with some helpful coping strategies:
1. Talk with your tween’s teachers.
By alerting her teachers that public speaking is outside of her comfort zone, her teachers have been able to come up with creative ways to get her to come out of her shell in the classroom. One teacher even gave her a code word to use if she needed to ask a question but was too nervous. Most teachers have had experience with shy teens and they can be an incredible resource for you when you are at a loss to help your teen navigate their social fears.
2. Take a friend to a social event.
While my daughter loves to dance, the thought of going to a school dance alone is paralyzing to her. Inviting a few friends who are attending the dance to our home beforehand helps ease the tension of the evening for her. By the time I drop her and her friends off, she has relaxed and the sound of the girlish giggles going into the school lets me know she’ll have a great time.
My daughter and I spend a lot of time discussing ways she can initiate conversation on a simple level. We have come up with a few icebreaking phrases and lines that she can use to initiate conversation in a new situation. “I love the color of your shirt!” is an easy way for a teen girl to open up a dialogue because let’s face it: The language of clothing is universal for teens. Often, just having that simple phrase at the ready can make all the difference for your shy teen at a social event.
4. Take away their “crutch.”
When my daughter is feeling shy, her instinct is to stick her nose in a book. We’ve had many conversations about body language and how it denotes our intentions. As much as it pains me to do so, we’ve taken away her book in social situations. Not only has it forced her to make eye contact with her peers but it’s led to opportunities for her to try out her icebreaking phrases. And, she’s often surprised to hear that her classmates didn’t bother her because they didn’t want to interrupt her reading.
5. Elicit help from the parents around you.
Whether it’s a Girl Scout leader, a trusted religious advisor, or a coach, your teen has interactions with adults who undoubtedly have their own issues with shyness or public speaking. By being honest about our daughter’s shyness, the adults in her world have gone above and beyond to help her step beyond her fears and feel more confident when she’s away from home. It truly takes a village and our daughter has been blessed with a tribe of adults who celebrate her social successes.
My daughter will always be the quiet child in the back and, though her shyness makes social situations difficult for her, I wouldn’t trade her shy quality for anything. She is intuitive, introspective, and fiercely loyal, and we are working to find ways to make sure she doesn’t feel hindered by her shyness. And, on those days when it’s too much for her to bear, I will simply open my arms and say, “Don’t be shy; let your mama give you a hug.”