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Shy teen at summer camp in her bunk writing

Every month I receive calls from concerned parents whose teenagers have spending too much time alone, having trouble making friends, seeming irritable, etc. It’s easy to understand why parents get worried. They see their wonderful, kind, sensitive, vulnerable, and generally, very shy teenagers withdrawing.

Tending the fire

I’m pretty sure teenagers have always been shy and plenty insecure. They are experiencing so many new and unexpected desires, emotions, and physical changes, it is completely natural to feel confused, awkward, and helpless. Teens today live in a world where what they do and say can be instantly seen via social media to a vast and sometimes unforgiving audience, it must feel very different than when I was a teen, fifty years ago.

David Whyte, the wonderful poet, said that …

“Shyness is the sense of a great unknown, suddenly about to be known. It is the exquisite and vulnerable frontier between what we think is possible and what we think we deserve.”

I remember reading this passage from a book, the main character is reminiscing about his past (paraphrasing) “When I was a teenager I felt like I was on fire. I remember there were plenty of kids who could happily help me let that fire get out of control, and there were plenty of adults who seemed available to extinguish the fire, but I remember feeling, why is there no one here to help me tend this fire?”

Seeing through a different lens

Having to deal with powerful feelings and discover new ways of being in the world is daunting, but what if instead of feeling shame around our shyness and fear, we could look at it as healthy, natural, and even necessary. Uncomfortable feelings are needed as we explore the great new mysteries life is offering us. I will try to view my own fears through that lens.

How does teen camp help teenagers break from fear and isolation? Well, if our camp is about anything, I think it is about connection. Teenagers recognize fairly quickly at camp that they are not going to be judged harshly, if at all. I believe this helps them relax, let go of some defenses, and share their gifts with peers, sometimes for the very first time.

We create a space where teenagers talk openly about things they are trying to figure out.

Teens in discussion at camp.

We offer group discussions on topics like gender, sexuality, race, parents, politics, etc., and teenagers can express themselves in a real, and honest way.  I’ve seen how beneficial and healing these discussion groups are.

We leave kids alone to read a book when that is what they feel like doing, and they don’t have to always put on a happy face, or act happier than they feel. Being in a community where you are seen, accepted, and loved can go a long way in helping teenagers come out of their shells and maybe more easily accept that invitation to the great unknown that is life.

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