Approximately one third of children could be described as shy. Although "shy" behaviors may look similar on the outside, children behave in shy ways for unique, personal reasons that are important to understand.
Everyone is born with a tendency, or temperament, to be shy, outgoing or somewhere in the middle. As children grow, they become more psychologically complex. Their temperament ceases to be a dominant factor in their behavior and becomes just one thread in a rich inner tapestry that determines behavior.
Shyness refers to social behavior. All human beings respond emotionally to social situations, particularly with anxiety or embarrassment to new social situations. Shy children are "internalizers" who cope by pulling inward in order to avoid the inevitable uncomfortable feelings associated with social situations. Outgoing children are "externalizers" who cope with these same uncomfortable feelings by diving right into social situations, perhaps to get a laugh or catch someone's eye to feel connected and more comfortable.
Lucy Daniels Center staff cannot recall a concerned parental inquiry about a child who leaped into social situations and quickly made friends! But parents are often concerned about their shy child, although these children are managing their emotions in as healthy a way as the outgoing child. Perhaps parents worry because they recognize that shyness is not an ideal "fit" in our outgoing culture.
Shyness becomes a problem when it is extreme, because it is often a signal that the child is coping with excessive painful feelings. We can identify problematic shyness when a child is shy in many different situations and when the shyness significantly interferes with the child's ability to learn, establish relationships, develop interests and construct positive self-esteem. Children with problematic shyness do not find ways to moderate their shyness; rather, they seem to be handcuffed by it. Here is an illustration of problematic shyness:
Janie, age 6, was finishing her first-grade year. Although she could be rambunctious at home, she was uniformly quiet and contained in her classroom. She did not enter into the lively friendship circles that were being formed, although she was beginning to form one quiet school friendship. Janie was reluctant to participate in any activity at school requiring her to be the object of attention, such as participating in a class play. She avoided talking to anyone with whom she was not very familiar. There were also other signs of insecurity, including a reluctance to stay at friends' homes without her mother and excessive worry about her parents' safety. Teachers and parents did not feel that Janie was just "slow to warm up," because there were only small signs of change and growth.
Helping the "just shy" child: Parents should not be unduly concerned about their child's development if shyness is limiting that child only in certain situations. Still, these children benefit from assistance from their parents, so that they can fully develop their interests. Shy people sometimes have a difficult time in our culture. We recommend that parents work collaboratively with their shy child on the basis of his or her own perspective. Parents might approach their child by saying: "I know that you love to dance, but it doesn't seem that you are having much fun at dance class. Do you agree?" If parent and child can reach agreement on this point, a parent can say, "Dad (or Mom) and I would like to help you have more fun at dance class. We can work on this together."
Parents who take this approach are respectfully recognizing their child as a fully independent being by allowing him or her to judge if their shyness is something that she would like to change. The child will understand that their parents are there to help, not to mold, which will support his or her autonomy and increase the chance for successful modification of the shy behavior.
It is important for a shy child to understand that their parents think that it is fine that he or she is a shy person, perhaps just like Mommy or Daddy. Parents can also tell their child that sometimes it is nice to be able to feel less shy, although it takes a long time to learn how. Sharing this perspective will frame the child small changes as big successes.
Role-playing can be very useful within a collaborative framework. Positive reinforcement can also help, particularly if parents reinforce specific behaviors that they and their child have identified as goals. Parents can usually find something to reinforce, even if it is just some component of his or her plan. For example, if a child is not able to fulfill a plan to join a group, parents can reinforce their thinking about making a positive move, even if he or she stayed frozen. We do recommend that parents avoid bribery, because it can be experienced as manipulative and coercive, and thereby undermine a child's autonomy.
Parents can also explain that shyness is a way to manage uncomfortable feelings, even helping their child to begin to identify the feeling that gets in the way when he or she freezes. Parents might suggest some other way to overcome the feeling, perhaps by reminding himself or herself of an encouraging thought or comforting person.
Finally, children learn the most from their parents' actions. If either mother or father were shy as children, and still have remnants of that shyness, they can talk to their child about this, explaining what they currently do to overcome their own shyness if it becomes a problem. Parents can expose their child to situations in which they are feeling a bit shy, but making the effort to be outgoing; their child will sense their effort and success, and will over time follow their lead.
Parents generally are providing assistance for shy children over the years of their growing up. They should relax and approach their child as someone that they are helping rather than molding. With this kind of help, children will grow in mastery and comfort with their very special quality of shyness.
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