One of the great joys of parenting is introducing your child to new experiences, people and things. It starts early, with parent-infant classes, and continues with a succession of play dates, camps and activities — anything to give the child an opportunity to make friends while learning new things.
But what happens when the infant cries through the entire class, or the toddler clings to mommy’s leg during a play date? Most parents want their child to be outgoing and popular, so caution or shyness in social situations is often seen as a negative — a problem to be fixed. Some parents are embarrassed by their shy child’s behavior and sense judgment from other people. Or they worry that their child will suffer socially if they can’t make friends easily.
Many psychologists see shyness as a matter of inborn temperament. Bernardo Carducci of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast contends that there is nothing wrong with being a shy individual. “We’d rather understand shy people than change them,” he says on the institute’s Web site.
The signs of shyness
Shyness can manifest in a variety of ways, depending on the child and the situation. Marion C. Hyson and Karen Van Trieste write in their paper “The Shy Child” that shyness is a common emotion that evolved to help individuals cope with social stimuli. It’s felt as a mix of emotions, including fear and interest, tension and pleasantness, the authors say. “By exhibiting shyness, a child can withdraw from a social situation temporarily to gain a sense of control,” they write.
Madrona mom Sally*, herself a former shy child, recognized the trait in her son at an early age. “I belonged to a couple of mothers’ groups, and he was always the first baby to want to leave. It was evident even at 6 months. When he got older, he’d get his shoes, go stand by the door and say ‘home,’ ” she said.
Child and family therapist Jennifer Brown, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., of Woodinville, says her own son presented his shyness in atypical fashion. “Rather than hide behind my leg, he would behave more aggressively, sometimes shouting — or growling — ‘Don’t look at me!’ to the sweet old lady who dared to smile at him.”
Coping with shyness
Parent educator and temperament specialist Helen F. Neville, B.S., R.N., says parents can work to mellow their child’s shyness rather than eliminate it. “The best path is the middle road … to expose these children gently but repeatedly to new things, getting gradually more involved,” says Nelville. The idea is to give them plenty of time to relax and get comfortable with new situations, slowly enough so the child is not terrified and flooded with stress hormones.
Neville believes parents should avoid going to extremes either by limiting their child’s exposure to new situations or by forcing them into every new encounter. She recommends setting up situations where children will have the opportunity to build one-on-one relationships with other children, noting, “Parents should focus on the quality of the relationships their child has, not the quantity.”
That’s exactly the approach Sally took with her son. “In a group music class, he didn’t participate actively, but watched from the sidelines,” she noted. “We didn’t push him, because I was that way when I was a kid, so we let him unfold at his own pace. He ended up forming some close friendships with kids he really liked. I feel that he’s really sure of where he is in this web of relationships.”
Brown’s son, Jacob, didn’t have problems with new situations or other children, but he was wary of unfamiliar adults — everyone from distant relatives to teachers — a behavior he did not exhibit until he turned 3. As a mental health professional, Brown was able to recognize his behavior as a coping mechanism for his apprehension; he was literally telling the adult to back off.
“It was important to me to accurately respond to his feelings, to understand what was motivating his behavior,” she said. “People are more tolerant of the reticent child than the one who presents atypically,” continued Brown. “Because his presentation is disrespectful, the adult often engages with him in a negative way. They don’t see him as shy, but as a bratty kid.”
Brown spent the next two years coaching Jacob in how to respond to new adults in a more socially acceptable manner. She helped him identify why he was feeling uncomfortable and showed him how to express that discomfort appropriately, or to say nothing. She made him understand that lashing out was not a behavior that was acceptable. Now 5, Jacob has matured developmentally and, though still slow to warm up to adults, can handle social encounters with more success.
About 50 percent of children outgrow their shyness by the middle of elementary school. The other half may struggle with it all the way through high school and college, and some into adulthood.
By the time a child is 8 or 9 and still exhibiting traits of shyness, a parent may feel the need to intervene more aggressively. The absence of any friends could be the sign of a more serious issue such as Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism, and a consultation with a mental health professional would be warranted.
But shyness in an older child can also be a by-product of other problems, such as low self-esteem or a lack of social skills. Parents can investigate activities that will help the older child gain confidence.
Karen Sharp, education director at Seattle Children’s Theatre, has seen a number of shy children in theater classes. She says the school works with these children and their parents to make the experience successful. “As a teacher,” says Sharp, “it’s my job to figure out what will engage the student. So we observe the child to see what activities in the class bring them in.”
Your shy child may just be more cautious and contemplative in how he or she approaches the world around them, experts note. “The world needs extroverts and introverts,” says Brown. “Imagine a world made up only of extroverts. We need someone to sit back and observe rather than rushing headlong into things.”
Andrea Leigh Ptak is a freelance writer and graphic designer who lives with her husband and 14-year-old daughter in southeast Seattle.
*Not her real name
3 great books for parents on helping shy children
The Shyness Breakthrough: A No-Stress Plan to Help Your Shy Child Warm Up, Open Up, and Join the Fun by Bernardo J. Carducci, Ph.D.
Nurturing the Shy Child: Practical Help for Raising Confident and Socially Skilled Kids and Teens by Barbara and Gregory Markway
The Shy Child: Helping Children Triumph Over Shyness by Ward K. Swallow