Teenagers with social anxiety spend less time with peers, exchange less personal information, experience more conflict with others, and are less skilled in resolving conflict. They may also pursue friendship with others who are struggling with similar difficulties which can limit the benefits of these friendships and may be less helpful in protecting against peer victimization.
Socially anxious teens may defend against their own self-doubt and anxiety by judging others negatively, denying desire for friendship with others, or expressing contentment with their own experience. Though they may wish for more friends, they often doubt their ability and fear rejection. Often, they feel lonely and helpless.
Teens with social anxiety may or may not lack social skills. Teens who lack social skills and who are socially anxious are the most likely to withdraw. Subsequently, they may be ignored or even rejected by peers so that they have even less opportunity to learn skills or gain acceptance. Increasingly, they expect themselves to perform poorly in social situations, and over time they may become depressed.
As teens transition into high school, old friends may be lost, and larger class sizes can become even more stressful. If socially anxious teens retreat or wait passively for unfamiliar peers to approach them, they may be left behind while others are making new friendships.
Socially anxious teens benefit from guidance in learning skills and actions for initiating and maintaining close friendships. Organized activities offer smaller, easier situations in which adolescents can develop comfort and confidence in interacting with others on at least a weekly basis. They become familiar with one another and gradually gain a feeling of acceptance.
But beyond gaining acceptance, it takes more to develop close friendships. Disclosing personal information, sharing personal experiences, and providing and receiving emotional support with friends as well as skills in exuding more positive affect are all important in developing more meaningful friendship. An anxious person without many close friends may describe him or herself as a “private person.” But for making close friends, being a “private person” is likely less helpful than openness with and interest in getting to know others in a more personal way.
In therapy, I often encourage anxious teens to watch their less anxious peers as they share comfortably with others in personal ways as observing good role models is often an effective means for learning new skills.