QMy 20-year-old son — the youngest of three boys — is not only smart, funny, athletic and drop-dead gorgeous, but he got good grades in high school, played varsity baseball for four years and served in the student government. ¶ However, he was, and is, desperately shy; he gets very little joy out of life and he has never had a close friend, even now that he’s a junior in college. It is as if his emotions were tied up in a straitjacket. ¶ Although he occasionally says that this makes him unhappy and that he would change things if he could, he usually leaves the room when I try to talk about it, or he shuts down completely and doesn’t say a word. ¶ My son gladly played with other children when he was little, but later he rejected many invitations to parties, events or other activities and would only hang out with the family. Perhaps he changed because I got a divorce when he was 5, but I don’t think so, since he was never close to his dad. ¶ This boy is sweet and loving with the family; he’s happy to do whatever we want to do and he answers us if we speak to him although he seldom initiates a conversation. He also has a great relationship with my middle son, but he couldn’t open up to a counselor, so I had him evaluated by a psychiatrist to find out if he was depressed or anxious or had some other problem. ¶ This doctor said he had social anxiety disorder and gave him medication, which my son took without enthusiasm but then had an allergic reaction to it. Now he won’t take it at all. ¶ I’ve also asked him to read “I Don’t Want to Talk About It,” by Terrance Real, because it helped me so much, and “The Shyness & Social Anxiety Workbook,” by Martin Antony and Richard Swinson, MD. but he wouldn’t read these books or even talk about them with me. Instead, he passively listens to me and takes no action at all. ¶ How can I help my boy?
AAlthough your son is super-shy, he is not alone. A third of U.S. teenagers and young adults say that they have trouble making and keeping friends. Jerome Kagan of Harvard has said that one out of 10 children is born shy and that nine of every 10 shy children outgrow the problem by the time that they’re adults — a finding that pretty much coincides with a study that the National Institute of Mental Health did .
Once you’ve wrapped your head around those stats, you can throw away your hairshirt and forgive yourself. Your son is probably so shy because of his own genetic makeup, rather than your divorce. According to promising new research, some people are genetically predisposed to have certain behavioral problems that blossom when life piles on too many stressors.
Since your son is so isolated and so alone at 20, he may not learn how to talk about his feelings and vent his concerns unless you get someone to intervene. And that someone should probably be his brother with whom he is so close.
Ask your middle son to help you find an experienced psychiatrist, psychologist, clinical social worker or counselor who will let him attend the sessions too, to prompt his brother to share his thoughts and even to speak for him when the words he is looking for are locked in his throat.
You can also find help at your local library.
Terence Real’s book on depression is good, and so is the book on shyness by Antony and Swinson, but your son will probably get much more out of “The Science of Making Friends” by Elizabeth A. Laugeson. This book, which comes with its own DVD and an app, is based on the deep research the author did at UCLA, and it’s packed with specific details so teens and young adults will know exactly how to talk to people; how to trade information; how closely they should stand; how loudly they should speak; how much they should say; and how to make good friends and where to find them. Your son will thank you for it.
Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly at washingtonpost.com/parenting, where you can also find past Family Almanac columns.
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