Unable to summon courage to join classmates building a snowman, your son observes from the sidewalk. Despite the new neighbor's warm personality, she could not elicit the slightest response from your daughter. Scenarios like these may evoke frustration for parents . . . and children. Take heart – others have journeyed this path and offer helpful advice.
A new perspective
Americans often equate shyness with indifference, yet many cultures extol its positive virtues – introspection, intelligence and thoughtfulness. It can be helpful to establish a healthy interpretation of shyness within your family. Indiana resident Shelley L. bore the "shy label" growing up. Today she empowers her children as they negotiate this quiet, contemplative trait. "We use the word 'introverted'; people seem to understand that some individuals are extroverts and others introverts – accepting this as a personality difference rather than a negative." A favorable perspective creates a more inviting topic for candid dialogue between parent and child.
"Children have different temperaments," emphasizes Nerissa Bauer, MD, MPH, Behavioral Pediatrician and Assistant Professor at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. "Some kids are shy, some feisty, others even-keeled. Identifying temperaments helps predict how they will react in new situations." The shy child follows their natural instincts when anxiety arises, cautiously evaluating how to handle uncomfortable situations. Parents can teach strategies to relieve anxiety and facilitate success. "Shy children don't need to be changed, they need to be valued," says Shelley.
Children notice how others react to their shyness and parents should help kids determine their underlying fears, rather than respond with criticism. By showing patience and encouragement instead of frustration and shame, parents help build self-esteem. Be mindful of your words, tone, body language and facial expressions. Instead of fuming when your child avoids an adult greeting, place a reaffirming hand on her shoulder and offer a pleasant reply to demonstrate an appropriate response.
Stepping out of comfort zones is harder for some than others. "A shy child may need more preparation when confronting a new situation," offers Bauer, "some allowance to hang back and observe rather than jump in. The key is to take things a bit slower and avoid frustration when they are less enthusiastic about something new or different." By practicing in the security of your home, your child will gain confidence to apply his new skills to uncomfortable circumstances. Parents can expand a child's comfort zone by teaching them strategies for a variety of social settings.
Children learn from behavioral coaching in calm settings. Dr. Bauer recommends books and smartphone apps focusing on social situations (going to the doctor, starting school), as they stimulate conversation and offer visuals. Role playing allows the child to rehearse encounters and practice the words they will use. "Parents can praise and reinforce skills while building a child's confidence," says Dr. Bauer. Shelley's child struggled with unexpected, unfamiliar activities during his preschool day. She requested the schedule in advance, preparing him at home. He learned to master his emotions and embrace the new activities. Gaining a sense of control can be an essential element to many children feeling more socially confident.
A parent's loving involvement and authentic communication with their child is key. Extend compassion, not criticism. Strengthen instead of scold. Engage your child in activities she truly enjoys. Shyness is just one facet of a child's personality; it will rise and fall through changing circumstances. In his book, The Shyness Breakthrough, Bernardo J. Carducci, Ph.D. writes, "By helping your child to understand and manage his shy feelings, you will be empowering him for years ahead."
We asked our Indy's Child Facebook readers for their input on how they have helped their shy children. Here's some of their advice.
Tags: Featured Article, Featured Article, In This Issue, Parenting
My 7 year old son is shy, especially in groups of people he doesn't know. I've found it best if we don't push him into opening up. Once he gets a feel for the room on his own, he naturally becomes more comfortable. Eventually, he will join in and start socializing. Children's feeling are valid and should not be dismissed because they don't fit what a parent thinks is right. – Deanna S.
I agree that you should not force a child to be social or make him feel like he should be. The parent should encourage the child to be comfortable with their own choices. There are plenty of opportunities to make a child feel self-confident through individual instead of group activities. I encourage my son to speak up for himself by ordering his own drink at dinner or by saying hi to people that he already knows. I ask him if he would like to say hi to new people. Sometimes making him feel like he is in control makes him less shy. – Mariah S.
I have 2 1/2 year old twin girls. One is very outgoing and the other is very shy! My shy girl hangs back with me until she feels comfortable. Then my free spirit girl will help her ease into play. Even if her outgoing sister isn't around, she still clings to me. I help her by showing her it's okay. And if she's not comfortable, I will stay with her or we try again another time. – Jennifer S.