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Parenting the Socially Shy Middle School Adolescent

Shying away from peer communication and interaction can limit growth..

Key points

  • Because it can limit adolescent growth, shyness is worth paying attention to.
  • During the more self-conscious and socially demanding middle school experience, more shyness can be aroused.
  • Most shyness is not temperamentally endowed but developmentally caused by adolescent growth.
  • Ten helpful suggestions parents might make for their shy adolescent.
Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

In the great list of significant human emotions, and the challenge of managing them, shyness may seem to occupy a very slight place.

Compared to painfully powerful feelings like loneliness, suspicion, fear, jealousy, suffering, and anger, for example, shyness doesn’t seem to amount to much, a minor distress. After all, shyness is just the discomfort and hesitancy to verbally express and interact with others, a lesser social anxiety (compared with a phobia, for instance). And it can sometimes be functional when a good informant. “What they like to do when they get together, I don’t feel comfortable or ready for yet.”

So what’s the big deal?

Why Shyness Matters

Within the unfolding context of adolescence, consider it this way. While some children welcome the growing freedom of social association and worldly experience that the onset of adolescence brings, in middle school, others can find it too much too fast. Instead of becoming more outgoing and expansive with the opportunity, they can become more inhibited and withdrawn instead.

Taking refuge in shyness, they avoid interacting because the exposure causes them to feel less confident during a rapidly changing and more vulnerable age. By shyness I mean a self-conscious insecurity in social situations that causes speaking up, interacting, and joining in to all feel uncomfortable to do.

It’s when feeling shy leads to acting shy that costs of social avoidance can occur. At worst, a protracted pattern of habitual isolation and loneliness can begin. Now is when parents can come in for counseling, wondering what if anything they might helpfully do. “She complains she doesn’t have any friends, but refuses to make any!” “He says it’s hard to act outgoing, but it’s so hard when he doesn’t!”

Parents can become impatient with adolescent shyness because, to their frustration, they see their teenager acting like her or his own worst enemy. How can their daughter or son keep shying away from social interactions and invitations that the unhappy teenager says she or he wants, acting reclusive instead of expansive, silent instead of expressive? Parental understanding, not criticism, works best.

Causes of Adolescent Shyness

While some shyness is temperamentally given (“He’s always been most comfortable by himself”), I believe the majority of cases of young adolescent shyness are developmentally caused (“She feels more hesitant now as acting social increasingly matters.”)

During middle school is when and where I believe the second major phase of adolescent freedom commonly unfolds—freedom of association and forming a family of friends. Now, as social conforming and belonging matter more, the push-and-shove of peer relationships and jockeying for social place can feel daunting when interaction becomes more consequential, competitive, and aggressive. At worst, five common acts of social cruelty are on the rise: teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring, and ganging up. Now shying away from social relationships can feel tempting to do: “Middle school can be a good time not to have friends!”

Shyness can be protective. “If I keep to myself, others will leave me alone.” However, when it suppresses communication, avoids interaction, and prevents participation, it can limit growth. For example, consider a possible contrast between two middle school students: one who acts assertive and one who acts shy. While the assertive student might speak up, relate, join, interact, and participate; the shy student might shut up, withdraw, avoid, separate, and isolate.

Lifestyle shyness can be costly when it condemns someone to solitary social confinement. “Nobody knows me and I don’t know anyone!” Some older cases of significant shyness I have seen have been rooted in middle school.

Ten Corrections for Shyness

So, what might parents suggest about reducing the rule of shyness? Here are some starters.

  1. Try mirror talk. Looking your reflection in the eyes, practice speaking up about who and how you are. If you can talk to yourself, you can talk to others.
  2. Find common interests. It’s easier to relate with others who enjoy doing what you do. Sharing what all enjoy makes it easier to talk together.
  3. Join a community group. Volunteer groups, church youth groups, or sport groups can be less socially pressured than at school. Create external group membership.
  4. Check out your self-image. It’s easier to speak and interact with others if you like yourself. Don’t let shyness from self-criticism shut you up.
  5. Normalize shyness. Understand that everyone, even parents, has times when speaking up can feel hard to do. Treat shyness as part of human life.
  6. Treat shyness as a dare. Rather than let it scare you into silence, treat shyness as a social challenge. Overcoming shyness allows you to act brave.
  7. Recognize effort. There is no failure from trying to act more outgoing and getting no response. Combatting shyness is measured by attempt, not outcome.
  8. Be moderate. For a shy young person, be content with having one or two good friends, and joining in occasionally. A little social company can be enough.
  9. Honor yourself. If shyness is causing you to feel left out and alone, choose inclusion. Don’t let shyness keep you from the social company you want.
  10. Question yourself. Beset by shyness, ask yourself: “If I wasn’t feeling shy, how would I choose to act?” Now heed your answer and consider doing that.

Shyness at School

This discussion reminds me of two social experiences that come with growing older that can arouse shyness: the eighth-grade dance, and, in years to come, attending high school parties.

The eighth-grade dance is traditional in some middle schools. Open to everyone, not all students attend because some are put off by the challenges of dressing up (personal appearance), conversation (casual communication), and dancing (public performing). For many young people, the potentials for self-consciousness, awkwardness, and embarrassment make engaging in this common rite of passage uninviting to do. So shyness strikes again when regret at missing out is chosen over risking showing up.

Up ahead are high school parties where refusal can feel more costly to do because these older gatherings create opportunities for acting more grown up. On these formal and informal occasions, when shyness makes communicating and interacting harder to do, sometimes illicit alcohol use can come to the rescue, providing liquid courage to loosen inhibitions and relax. And now solving one problem can create a problem of another kind—regularly relying on drink (or another recreational drug) to overcome social reserve. Contending with shyness, sober effort beats chemical support.


Parents need to let their middle school student know that it is normal to feel shy. Most everybody has times when they do. What may not be okay on these occasions, however, is acting shy because by doing so feeling shy gets worse, and can limit opportunities to grow.

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