Does your teen seem to lack friends and spend most of their time alone? Most parents are worried by signs that their child is isolated or disconnected from their peers – and with good reason. Adolescence is a period where young people typically turn towards their peers for the identification and social interaction they used to get from their families. They become increasingly aware of the society outside their immediate home and school environment, and orient themselves towards the world as a whole. If your teen seems to be turning inwards instead of outwards, you might worry that something is wrong, or that they don’t get to experience the aspects of life that they need to grow into fully formed adults.
When figuring out how to help, there are a few things to consider: Sometimes what looks like social anxiety or intense shyness might simply be introversion. If your teen seems to enjoy the time they spend on their own, and engage with contentment in solitary activities like reading, internet browsing, arts & crafts, or music, needing time alone could be part of their personality. Introverts get great satisfaction from time spent alone, reflecting on or immersing themselves in their own thoughts and interests. They have a rich inner life which requires time and attention to maintain. You might notice them having just a few close friends that they rely on. Introverted people prefer socialising one to one, or in smaller groups of people they know well, and afterwards they need time to recharge their energy. Putting pressure on them to engage in very extraverted activities like socialising in big groups of unknown others makes them stressed and anxious, and sends a signal to them that they aren’t acceptable the way they are.
Importance of social skills in teens
It’s important for them to gain and maintain social skills, but the best environments for them to do so are familiar places and people they feel comfortable, or share interests with. They may prefer structured environments like classes or society/club meetings over more unpredictable ones like parties and concerts. So try to enable them to take part in social activities that are meaningful to them, and encourage them to talk about their experience afterwards, to help them process any difficulties they might have encountered.
What is introversion?
Introversion is a common personality trait, and won’t keep your teen from leading a happy and successful life – especially if they learn to understand and balance their need for solitude with their need for connection with others. Sometimes counselling can be helpful as a way for introverted teens to explore how to do this, but for the most part they will figure themselves out.
However, if your teen seems withdrawn and avoidant of other people in general, or if they appear unhappy in themselves when they’re alone, that might be a sign of shyness or social anxiety. You might notice a lack of friendships or activities outside of home, and difficulties attending school and free time activities due to anxiety and worry. Teens who are socially anxious often have low self-esteem, and worry that others don’t like them, or that they have nothing to contribute socially. They feel tense and uncomfortable around others, and often think negatively about social interactions after they happen.
Social Discomfort in teens
That level of social discomfort is a problem because it keeps your teen from developing social skills, and gaining the self-awareness and self-esteem that comes from engaging with other people. Loneliness is intensely painful for teens, and they’re often very self-conscious about appearing friendless. They blame themselves for not being likeable, or for being too different to connect with others.
If you want to support your shy teen, think about ways you can help them express both their desire for connecting with others, and their fears about trying. Understand that they’re not anti-social, but that they don’t trust their own ability to ‘do it right’. Encourage them to try new things out, and approach people in low-stress environments, and to process the experience afterwards by talking it through. Help them identify any negative thoughts or feelings that come up when they’re around others – like self-criticism, embarrassment or shame. Build their confidence by emphasising their positive qualities and their skills and facilitating their engagement in hobbies and activities they enjoy. Help them set manageable social goals and manage their (and your) expectations of themselves.
How to help
If they’re struggling to overcome their fears, talk to them about counselling, and see if they would be open to working with a professional to build their social confidence. A psychologist or counsellor can help them explore the barriers to connecting with others, and address these in a systematic way.
Donal holds a BA (Hons) Psychology and a MSc Systemic Psychotherapy. Donal’s main area of interest is working with families, children, and couples across a wide area of issues. Donal’s approach is collaborative in sessions, allowing the client time and space to acknowledge they are the expert in their own lives. Donal has been with Spectrum Mental Health since 2018 and holds a Team Lead role within the company supporting other clinician’s and is a member of our clinical governance team.