Double Take: Anti-social behavior starts to worry mother

Dear Dr. Wes & Ben:

My daughter has always been shy and now that she is in junior high she seems to prefer to do things by herself. She doesn’t join extra-curricular activities or ask other girls over. When I ask her if she feels lonely or wants us to help her find some more social activities, she gets mad and tells me that everything is OK. We need some advice on how to help her.

Ben: An old Zulu adage states, “A person is a person through other persons.” The English poet John Donne restated this idea when he said, “No man is an island.” From English to Ubuntu, we all seem to agree that everybody needs somebody to some degree.

We are complementary. You have gifts, experiences and perspectives that I do not, and vice versa. With you, I grow; without you, I put life in a box. We all know that when hardships come, the heaviest burdens are the ones we bear alone. If I have no one to encourage me, to support me, to guide me, then all I can do is hope that I can stagger through to the end of my trial. In short, we need each other.

In light of this, it’s natural to be concerned for those who isolate themselves, especially your children. What we must remember, however, is that no person is a project. There is a danger, especially in parenting, to manufacture a person’s life based on what you think is best for them.

Children get their initial worldview from their parents. A lot of kids are conservative because their parents are conservative. However, you also have kids who are liberal because their parents are conservative. The kid is still being influenced by the parent, but that influence springs out of resentment. Kids don’t want to feel as though they’re being designed to think a certain way in order to complete their worth as a person.

While you’re justified in concern for your daughter’s isolation, it’s important that you don’t make her social life your project. Nothing will drive her into deeper introversion more quickly. Your very attempt to help her with a burden becomes a burden.

Rather than approach this as a concern, try to learn from it. What are her interests? See what you can do to encourage and help her pursue those, not for the sake of being social, but simply to do something she enjoys. After all, we rarely make friends because we’re looking for them. It’s usually something more along the lines of, “You do? No way! Me too.”

Wes: My dad was an amateur psychologist long before I was a professional one. He taught me to hate that Barbra Streisand song “People. People who need people. Are the luckiest people in the world.” He felt everyone was entitled to be introverted if they wanted, and there was nothing inherently good about needing people. I’m not sure that’s what Babs meant exactly, but, as it turns out, my dad was right — mostly. So let’s begin by defining terms.

“Shy” is not the same as “introverted.” Introversion and extroversion are on two ends of the same spectrum, not discrete ways of being, and introversion is not itself a problem in need of a cure. In fact, intro/extroversion is distributed normally in the general population, just like IQ. Only at either extreme do we diagnose psychological disturbance. Shyness exists apart from intro/extroversion and refers to the inability to engage socially due to extreme anxiety or very poor social skills. Also some ADD kids are shy because they can’t read social cues, and tend to pull back rather than get themselves into social jeopardy. Shy extroverts are greatly pained by their inability to make friends, while shy introverts don’t care so much. People tend to wear out the introverts, whereas extroverts get great energy from social interplay.

So find out whether your daughter is a natural introvert. If she is, go down the path Ben suggested, encouraging her to be successful in her own way, even if that is more in the company of herself than others. But if she’s shy and wants to make more friends, then you’ll want to do some social-skills training and, if the situation is severe enough, consider an anxiety diagnosis.

Adolescence is particularly difficult for introverts, because the group mean average shifts toward extroversion, before returning to normal in young adulthood. This leaves very introverted teens feeling even more alone, because there are fewer of them. True introverts will be happiest among other introverts and their temperament should be honored, not misunderstood as dysfunctional.

Before you take any action, I’d suggest interviewing the school counselor and teachers to gather information, and maybe dropping in for a couple sessions with a licensed child therapist. As Ben says, there’s a limit on what you can do here, so you want to move carefully and select your target behaviors wisely.

— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Ben Markley is a senior at Free State High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to doubletake@ljworld.com. All correspondence is strictly confidential.

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