The following is the answer from Lucy Daniels Center clinicians to parents who were concerned about their 5-year-old son's shyness. We hope that our answer will be useful to other parents as well.
Q. Is there such a thing as too shy? Our 5-year-old son Nick seems happy and secure, but he is very shy in many situations. For example, in kindergarten, Nick talks with classmates but remains silent in group situations and says little spontaneously to his teacher. Most anywhere, if someone he doesn't know speaks to him, he looks down. Should we be concerned? How can we help him?
A. When we say that a child is shy, we are describing how that child behaves. The Lucy Daniels Center believes that descriptions of behavior are generally only a starting point. If we take the next step and understand more about how a child is feeling when acting shy, we are able to see the world through his eyes and be of the most help to him.
Some children are, simply put, just shy. We see differences in infants from the earliest months. One 6-month-old might smile and physically lean toward a smiling stranger, whereas another 6-month-old might show no reaction or even stiffen and pull back. Clearly, there are genetic factors at work, which we describe as a child's "temperament." Temperamentally influenced behaviors are associated with feelings as much as behaviors that develop on the basis of life's experiences.
How does an infant feel when he or she is acting shyly? No one can say for sure, but shyness and outgoingness seem to relate to the emotions that an infant has to manage in social situations. Every social situation stirs feelings; there may be moments of confusion, excitement, anxiety, pleasure or embarrassment. Some infants seem to have mostly positive initial emotions and are able to quickly overcome (or, in psychological lingo, "regulate") any negative emotion that might arise. These children are the outgoing ones. The children who seem to be stuck for a bit of time with a bit more discomfort are the shy ones.
There is nothing better or worse about being shy or outgoing. However, we do live in a culture that values outgoingness. Think about it this way: How often do teachers raise concerns about children who are "too friendly?" This is purely a cultural matter. There are parts of the world where people think differently, where shyness is seen as a valuable trait rather than something that needs to be overcome.
The important point here is that shyness arising from temperament is not a problem unless the child's world views it as a problem. Since your son may have a bit tougher go of it in our culture, it may be sensible to try to encourage him to build up some "mental muscles" to manage his emotions and be a bit more outgoing. The most helpful way to assist Nick is through modeling from the people who matter the most: mom and dad. Shy children often have at least one shy parent; if this so in your family, Nick will benefit from seeing you push your own boundaries. He will know - because all children know the insides of their parents very well - that you are making an effort, and he will learn and take heart from that effort.
Talking also helps, and we recommend a general stance of collaboration. Find areas that concern Nick, and join him in seeking solutions. For example, you might say to him, "Mrs. Smith tells me that you are pretty quiet in class during group times and with her. That is fine with Mrs. Smith and me, but I wanted to ask if you wish that you were talking a little more. Sometimes it is nice to be able to feel less shy."
If Nick showed any interest in the discussion, you could say that you would like to try to help. You could ask some particular things, such as whether he ever needs to use the bathroom and doesn't know how to ask, or whether he ever wants to tell someone something and finds it difficult. If there are things that he would like help with, try to engage him as much as possible in thinking through the solution. You might even try role-playing situations, being sure to make this as much fun as you can. If you can establish a good collaboration, you can eventually explain that shyness is a way to manage uncomfortable feelings. Everyone has a way, and this is Nick's way. Perhaps you can help Nick begin to identify the feeling that gets in his way when he "freezes." You might suggest some other way that he can overcome the feeling, perhaps by reminding herself of an encouraging thought or comforting person.
Not all children are shy because of temperament. Some children are shy because they are experiencing excessive emotional concerns. In this case, shyness is not a situation of a child just being who he is, but it is a situation of inhibition - a child who, because of anxiety, guilt, shame, sadness or other painful feelings, has become something different than who he or she is. In this situation, attention needs to be given to the root causes of the inhibition that is showing up as shyness. Children who are shy on the basis of emotional inhibition deserve professional evaluation and treatment that is individually tailored to their needs.
You are pleased with Nick's general emotional development, so relax. Follow this low-key approach in which your son not only knows that you think that it is OK to be shy, but that you are as proud of that part of his personality as you are about other things about him. Offer collaboration without pressure, and you can feel confident that Nick will continue with his healthy emotional development.
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