In my practice as a clinical psychologist specializing in working with adolescent girl and boys, I see many combinations of personality characteristics, families and social contexts that are a recipe for difficulty.
Consider the most obvious one. You have a very extroverted set of parents with an introverted child. The child has been labeled as shy by the parents for many years and he or she has learned to accept this label and is now a shy teen. This teen continues to avoid unfamiliar experiences, group situations and dreads the first day of new experiences like school, camp and other situations that the socially comfortable and more outgoing teen would either be indifferent to or look forward to.
Shy teens don't wake up one day and make a conscious choice to be shy. They often describe feeling self-conscious, nervous and awkward around others unless they know them well. These shy teens tell me that they can feel their faces begin to become flushed and red and their palms begin to sweat. These physical symptoms embarrass them further and increase the emotional anxiety often associated with shyness. Recently, I have become particularly interested in a term that a number of teenage girls that I have been working with this year have used. They describe being "painfully shy." I have asked each of them separately to describe what they mean by "painful" and they consistently say that the social awkwardness that they feel around their peers feels painful emotionally. They are not describing painful chest pains or shooting pains in other parts of their body. We all know, however, that emotional pain can be the worst pain of all. Consider the expression "broken heart." That is among the worst sort of pain that is part of the human condition.
Now, I would like to switch gears a little at this point to talk to you about a subgroup of teen girls that I am currently working with. These girls all describe themselves as painfully shy. Interestingly, they are all very attractive by objective standards. Yes, they have boyfriends, but they lack female friends. They describe feeling terribly misunderstood by their female peers. The combination of being attractive and shy leads others to think that they are standoffish and snobby. Somehow, attractiveness is never expected to coexist with shyness. Where have we as a society come up with this formula? No, attractive teen girls and boys are not immune from painful emotions and experiences.
It is our responsibility as parents, teachers, therapists and members of the community to teach others that beauty is not a vaccine against life's difficulties. I know that it may seem odd that I am asking that you teach your kids that attractiveness doesn't necessarily give the genetically endowed a head start in every area of life, but this is the truth. It does not. And, in some cases, like with the teens that I described above, attractiveness can make things harder socially for the teen girls. They are expected to be confident so very few peers will even consider the possibility that they may be ill-at -ease and need a little help from their peer group.
We speak about bias against the obese and teens with other sorts of difficulties but I personally have never read anything about the problems associated with being an attractive teen girl. So this is my plea to look at these girls with a different lens -- one that is less clouded by assumptions. They will be grateful. I can promise you that.
And, perhaps a lyric from an old rock and roll song will help us here-- "I get by with a little help from my friends."
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