May 25, 2005, 12:08

Part One: Assessment
By: Marc D. Skelton, PhD, PsyD, ABPP

[Dr. Marc Skelton is a licensed adult and adolescent clinical psychologist as well as marriage and family therapist. He also earned board certification as a Diplomat in clinical psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP).]

At any given time, roughly 20 percent of teens are likely to experience significant emotional difficulty. Among those, the shy/withdrawn adolescent may have major conflicts and issues but nobody knows. In fact, sometimes parents are not able to detect the internal storm or struggle in the shy or withdrawn, largely due to an external calm. A unique warning sign for parents of a shy/withdrawn teen could easily be: Its 9 p.m. on Saturday Night: Why is it you know exactly where your shy and withdrawn teen is?

Shy and withdrawn teens are oftentimes highly sensitive to their immediate environment. Parents thus need to be available and consistent in their actions. Many adolescents lack an internal structure for control and find it difficult to focus on a consistent and constructive problem-solving plan. Parents can help by providing meaningful structure.

Unfortunately, teens may not have the self-awareness to recognize how their detachment and withdrawal can stimulate frustration and even anger in parents. At the same time, they need a strong relationship with a trusting adult. By learning more about how shy/withdrawn behavior in teens occurs via assessment, parents and practitioners can learn how to treat its negative aspects. In time and with support, these teens can succeed and even thrive.


One way to conceptualize shy/withdrawn behavior is to view a teen as "internalizing" his difficulties by becoming preoccupied or self-conscious. This type of behavior is often contrasted with the sometimes more obvious "externalizing" problems of an outgoing, direct teen who is busy stealing cars, drinking and causing trouble for others. Or, as one mother described her two teens: "One asks for permission (then acts); the other acts (then asks) for forgiveness. The teen who asks before acting is more likely to internalize while the one who acts first and apologizes later, exhibits the characteristic traits of externalizing.

In general, teens that do not assume more independence, a wider interest in the world and others, hold back or do not express interest (and ease) with the opposite sex may be at heightened risk.

If the teen is not in full rebellion or limit testing, but is exhibiting moodiness and unpredictability in combination with a withdrawn stance, it might be time for action.

Common Reasons for Adolescent Shyness and Withdrawal:

1) Self-consciousness (related to appearance, behavior)
2) Under-developed social skills
3) Substance abuse
4) Underlying feelings of insecurity and/or inadequacy
5) Significant introversion with ambivalent emotions
6) Identity confusion or uncertainty

Shy or Withdrawn Behavior as Constructive or Adaptive

Oftentimes an adolescent may need to pull back from the demands of others. Pulling back can form a healthy counterbalance to over-exposure or high levels of contact. However, too much withdrawal can lead to avoidance and self-consciousness.

Most teens sometimes cope by using withdrawn behavior like always being away from home, or if home, in their room. In fact, adolescents like to withdraw into their rooms at such high frequency that this particularly characteristic behavior can be considered normative. However, when shyness/withdrawal is the consequence of substance abuse, significant depression or other emotional difficulties-parents need to become immediately involved.

Other examples of positive withdrawal actions may include a period of detachment following intense contact. For example, a teen might resist friends who are experimenting with a new found habit of reckless driving. In this situation, the teen may actually be withdrawing from dangerous behavior. Self withdrawal becomes a concern only when the parent feels the teen is too uncomfortable.

Shy or Withdrawn Behavior as Destructive or Maladaptive

In assessing your teen, look at whether or not your child is compliant or defiant, reserved or outgoing, routine or spontaneous. The shy/withdrawn teen will tend toward compliance, be reserved and prefer routine. He/she may move away or avoid others when difficulties arise. At times, withdrawn behavior can take on the role of indirect (sometimes passive-aggressive) anger.

When is shyness/withdrawal a problem and how can you tell? The following are troubling signs keyed to specific common issues:

Alienation—Many inhibited adolescents will find quick diversions through gadgetry that only a persistent friend or parent can hope to penetrate. It is fine for the teen to use solitary electronic entertainment, yet ask how the teen is using it. If it is simply to withdraw or avoid, depression may not be far behind.

Anxiety and Depression—Sometimes shyness and/or withdrawal is a symptom of anxiety and/or depression. It is helpful to ask teens directly about their feelings/moods.

Substance Abuse—Alcohol and drugs may decrease inhibitions and be tempting to the shy/withdrawn teen. Unfortunately, the dangers associated with teen alcohol and drug abuse is too high a price. At the extreme, many adolescents commit suicide while intoxicated or high. Adolescents may resort to drug use for social acceptance, self-esteem enhancement, escape, risk taking or the opposite—stress reduction.

Motivation—A shy/withdrawn teen who says, "I would like to get to know some more people," is probably motivated internally and the parent does not have to apply much external motivation.

Unfortunately, motivation can also be low. Your child remarks, "I don't care about friends, leave me alone, it's a free country—I can be on the computer 18-hours a day, why not?" Difficulty is likely to arise between teen and parent when little self-motivation is generated. Parents need to supply external motivation. "Look, I know you like the computer, but if you at least call one of your friends today, we will get off your back for awhile, deal?"

School Truancy and/or Failure—Many withdrawn adolescents may do worse in school without telling anyone so parents don't know. Evasiveness in talking about a new group of friends should also raise an alert. Whereas some measure of escape or withdrawal from the family is common in teens, continued secretiveness, lying and chronic dishonesty are not.

The following suggestions may help you connect with your teen when grades become an issue.

1) Be a consultant to the academic problem, not antagonistic.
2) Find out what reasons there may be for grades dropping.
3) Be realistic about your teen's true abilities/achievement level. Focus on abilities while learning how to address relative weaknesses in an organized manner. For example, a teen may excel in English but may need a tutor in Math.

Part 2 continues...

© Copyright 2012 by Woodbury Reports, Inc.