The Shy Years

The Shy Yearsstock-footage-high-school-hallway-slow-zoom-slow-zoom-down-a-long-empty-high-school-hallway-lockers-lining

This article originally appeared in the 'Mothers and Babies' section of the Irish Independent back in April, in a special issue focusing on teenagers and parents. (You can find the original, virtually unscannable version in my scrapbook.) I went looking for a picture of me in the 'crayon' outfit, but could only find one vaguely mopey picture from 1986, below.  Read on...

If you're a parent of a teenager, you may have seen this happen: overnight a sunny, confident child becomes a withdrawn, self-conscious teenager - someone who will do anything to avoid calling attention to themselves, a shy person. What causes it and how can you bring that confidence back? I went through this myself as a kid and I don't have an answer. At the time, I was just as confused as anyone.

It might be as simple as finding yourself in a different world with no clear idea of how to behave. As a child I was a loudmouth, a class clown. I didn't care about being pretty or popular. I chose clothes because they were comfortable, did things because they were fun and talked to people because I liked them. Then as I reached the age of eleven, I realised that this was the wrong way to be. All the kids were going up to the high school soon, and I had to act more like a 'young lady'.

me 1986This wasn't something that came naturally to me. Being a teenage girl seemed so complicated. There were accessories, powders and perfumes, as well as a whole system of social behaviour – learning how to give and withhold flattery, choosing which kids to be friendly with and which to ignore. I wasn't very good at it. I didn't even know how to dress. On my first day at the high school I wore a dark red sweater and red cords with a red blazer. I had some idea that being stylish meant everything should match.  I resembled a walking crayon, as the other kids were quick to point out, and looking good was everything.

I no longer felt like being the centre of attention was a good thing, not when all I could seem to do was make mistakes. So I got very quiet. I stopped speaking up in class and clung to a small circle of girls I felt comfortable with. As bad luck would have it, these girls moved away within months of each other, and then I was on my own.

Over the next few years I became painfully withdrawn, afraid to speak to anyone. This was real fear too – trembling hands, a jittery stomach...there were times I'd get so nervous I could barely understand what people were saying to me. I dressed to deflect attention – a lot of grey and black. As I walked into the school building each day, I'd  feel my face becoming immobile. It was difficult even to smile. I wished I could get out of it, but didn't know how. 'Your voice box must have dust on it.' a classmate joked in my grad yearbook.

I'm not sure if my parents were aware of all this. My shyness seemed oddly localised – in school I was terrified to speak, but at home I was the same old grouchy loudmouth I'd always been. Did my teachers say anything to them? You tend to talk about the problem kids, the trouble-makers. Nobody worries much about the quiet ones.

I certainly wasn't going to share this problem with them myself. I was too ashamed. 'Mom? Dad? I'm a loser with no friends my own age.' It would have crushed me to admit it. When you're past a certain age, you don't want your parents to comfort you and solve your problems. You want them to respect you.

My mother must have known there was something wrong, because she did make some little-miss-shyattempts to help me out socially. In fact there was one appalling moment when I caught her on the phone trying to invite a girl from my class to the house. I pressed down on the receiver and ended the call, furious. She was only trying to help. But when it comes to your child's social life, is this even possible? Teenagers have to find their own social identity. It's not something that anyone can do for them and it often involves a lot of missteps that are excruciating to watch from a loving parent's point of view.

Still, my mother did end up helping me, more than she knew. Mom thought I was wonderful, and she let me know this at every opportunity. I got hassled for my awful table manners, nagged for neglecting my homework, begged not to swear. But on the whole my mother was firm in her conviction that I was the greatest kid in the world and that she loved spending time with me and thought other people would be lucky to do the same. As I gradually chipped away at the wall cutting me off from other kids, this was something that made it easier to keep going, though I'm sure I never consciously acknowledged it.

Becoming shy seemed to happen overnight, but getting over it was a long, gradual process. It involved a lot of risk taking, a lot of facing down fears. Every day brought its own small victory –someone new I'd been able to talk to, a friendship beginning. When I went to university I even enrolled in a theatre class. I had to get up in front of everyone and speak in a loud, clear voice, be expressive, the centre of attention. I was sure I wouldn't be able to do more than whisper the lines.

At the end of the first semester I received my grades. I got an 'A'.

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