"The goal is to help girls make new friends and feel more socially connected. And they personally know how important that is"
Nicole Pucci remembers what it felt like to not fit in during middle school. "No one feels like they belong. It is an awkward stage where you are trying to figure out how to relate to others."
Amy Przeworski reached her adult height of 5-foot-9 in sixth grade and struggled to blend in with classmates a foot shorter.
The two Case Western Reserve University researchers know what it's like to be an anxious, introverted young girl, and they don't want others to feel like they did in middle and high school.
So Pucci and Przeworski have created Girls Link, a free five-session program to teach shy and anxious girls between age 10 and 14 how to handle rejection, teasing, fears and negative feelings, and to connect them with coping resources when necessary.
"Shyness can have its problems, but shy girls can also be observant and good listeners. Because of their own sensitivity to emotions, they can empathize with others," Pucci said.
Girls at this age experience many life changes, from new schools to puberty and a new sense of wanting to fit in. If girls feel awkward and uncomfortable in social settings, it may lead to depression, Przeworski said.
"Early adolescence is a time in which we see a large spike in the number of females with anxiety and depression symptoms," said Pucci, a doctoral student in Case Western Reserve's clinical psychology program.
These symptoms, if not addressed early, can lead to another problem experienced by more female teens than males - suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Severe shyness, according to the American Psychological Association, often results in such symptoms as blushing, sweating, a pounding heart or upset stomach, negative self-esteem and a tendency to withdraw from social interactions.
Girls Link will be offered at Cuyahoga County Library branches in Beachwood, Brecksville and North Olmsted in June and July. After that, the program will continue at other locations to be announced, and at Case Western Reserve's psychological sciences department.
Case Western Reserve doctoral students in psychology will lead the sessions under the guidance of a state licensed psychologist.
While Girls Link is offered as a public service, the program is also the subject of Pucci's doctoral research. She has streamlined some traditional interventions that take months to complete, hoping to learn whether the shorter approach is as effective.
Parents or guardians can enroll participants in the program by calling 216.368.5022, ext. 2. For more information, visit psychology.case.edu/research/girlslink.
Each participant will be assigned to one of two groups of seven to 10 girls: a peer support group that fosters friendship-building, or a skills group that fosters strategies to overcome stress in social situations. The girls will socially mix in some fun activities and practice the skills they learn.
The goal is to help girls make new friends and feel more socially connected. And they personally know how important that is.
While everyone is shy in some situations, Pucci and Przeworski note some people have such extreme shyness that they go out of their way to avoid social situations or any face-to-face contact.
Pucci said that these girls tend to be labeled as shy early on and have a hard time breaking out of that mindset.
"We hope this program allows girls to develop new social contacts inside or outside their communities," Pucci said.
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