It is early morning as I write this. The sun is just coming up and there is crispness to the air that makes the day seem full of possibilities and new experiences.
The thought of something different happening or seeing friends fills me with energy and brings a spring to my step. I love to meet people, explore new ideas and to travel. Today, I am also thinking about those people for whom the opposite is true. There are many folks who dislike change or surprises.
In my work with youth and their families, I have interacted with many adolescents who are so anxious in social settings that they avoid new experiences, find school an excruciating ordeal and isolate themselves in an attempt to reduce their stomach pain, rapid breathing and sense of fear that something horrible is going to happen.
Yes, some folks are extroverts and some are introverts and that is just how we have developed. I am talking about those few who are becoming increasingly isolated and for whom their world and opportunities are shrinking out of a sense of panic.
These youth may have been bullied and thus pull away from social situations. The normal awkwardness of adolescence may be exacerbated by a lack of social skills. Or, a learning difficulty that they have managed to handle may suddenly be overwhelmed by the increase in an academic workload, making their previous coping method ineffective.
Rarely do we find an adolescent who wakes up early in the morning going, “Hurrah, I get to get up early, go to a crowded building for six hours where I'm told by multiple adults what to do as I race from class to class, fight the masses of other hormonal adolescences in the hall, then race to an after school activity, then come home to do homework for a couple hours."
Our youth go to achieve an end goal because they have accepted that school is their “job” and because it is an opportunity to hang out with their friends and socialize. What if that socialization becomes intolerable? How do we support our youth on their developmental journey?
As adults, we need to realize that these kids face fears at school that we never did.
I worried about wearing the wrong clothes, they worry about going into the wrong bathroom and interrupting a drug deal. I was concerned about students talking behind my back, today they are worried about postings on Facebook that everyone sees. I dealt with smoke bombs in the bathrooms, they hear about guns and shootings that kill fellow students.
What can we do as parents?
We can pay attention to changes in the behavior of our kids. We can listen with support, not platitudes when they discuss being overwhelmed. We can demonstrate time management skills again and again and again. We can provide opportunities for them to practice social skills, rather than texting, such as family dinners and interactions with small groups of peers.
We can hear their fears about safety even if they cannot articulate them and talk about how to stay safe and be aware of their environment. We can build their self confidence day-by-day by believing in them and their ability to make good decisions. We can pay attention to when they need skills that we do not have and locate someone who does have that information to teach them.
Believe in your teens and believe in your knowledge of what is “normal” for them. They may not come to you to unload their fears, but you can always go to them.
Part of growing up is developing the social skills that are needed to have positive interactions with others, to express ourselves clearly and to have the ability to know when our anxiety is getting in the way of our life. It also includes learning coping skills to move beyond that anxiety.
Please be aware of what your youth may not be able to articulate and help them on their social education journey.
Melissa Huemmer is the Cary mom of three and clinical director at St. Paul's Center for Hope and Healing in Cary. The center offers programs and counseling services for kids to adults. She writes about raising teens on Go Ask Mom.