You know that child I am talking about: the one that is reserved, and cautious, taking time to observe before delving in. The one that doesn't engage until they are truly sure that the situation is going to be a comfortable fit for them. Some kids (and adults) are consistently shy, regardless of who they are interacting with. Others are shy depending on the situation. It's said that 50% of adults claim shyness as one of their qualities; this is clearly not a unique situation, nor is it a negative trait.
There's nothing wrong with being a little reserved. But if feeling shy keeps a child from enjoying new experiences and doing the things she truly wants to do, it can be a problem. Being shy feels uncomfortable, and it causes us to miss out on opportunities.
One of my kids is shy, and as he gets older, he seems to be getting more and more reserved. There is little he hates more than having special attention directed towards him. It’s gotten to the point that he is missing out of activities that he loves, and it makes me sad. As a parent, isn't this what we hope to avoid for our children?
Shyness isn’t just a feeling: There's behavior -- avoiding eye contact, turning the head away, or hiding behind the mother. There are physical manifestations of anxiety -- heart racing, blushing, or crying or thrashing about for a baby. And finally, there are thoughts and feelings. Older kids say things like, 'Everyone's staring at me' or 'I don't know what to say.' It doesn't go away either. It's an enduring, recurring thing.
Some parents feel that it's important to accept a shy child the way she is. Others focus more on teaching a child to interact more comfortably in social situations. Ultimately, it's best to combine support with encouragement. You don’t want to change your child’s personality so much as teach them how to work within their own personality to be able to do the things they want to do.
What to do? A couple of suggestions.
Identify activities that take advantage of your child's strengths. Is your child athletic? Artistic? Neat and organized? Good at math? Loves to read? Good at building things? What holds his/her attention? What is least likely to discourage him/her? And find activities that take advantage of those strengths.
If your child is very shy and unwilling to attend group activities, start with solitary activities at first--like music lessons, arts and crafts projects out of books, practicing basketball in a hoop in your yard. Then, as your child gains more confidence, arrange opportunities for him/her to get guidance from other adults and gradually--with time--to share his/her interest with children his/her own age.
Encourage your child to share his/her expertise with others by performing, teaching, showing his/her work or simply describing what s/he is doing to others. Many children benefit from teaching their skill to children who are younger than them.
Seek out activities that offer an opportunity for growth and increased interaction with children their own age. For example, teaching your child to kick a ball around the backyard might increase thier confidence when playing with other children on the street and eventually lead to your child's willingness to consider joining a soccer team. Or learning to play a musical instrument might start off as a solitary exercise, but lead to your child's playing in the school band. By encourage your children to develop passions early in life, the journey will make them richer for the experience. And don't worry if they find a passion you don't like (assuming it's not dangerous, life threatening or too obnoxious to live with), most children will grow out things with time. Just know that the more things your children do in life, the more things they will have to share with other people and the easier it will be for them to connect. For a shy child, the ability to connect with another child is one of the greatest gifts they can receive. There’s a challenge inherent in this suggestion, though: getting shy children to try things (especially new things) can be difficult. If your child felt comfortable doing things, they wouldn't be shy. But because they are shy, odds are your child avoids precisely those things that could help them overcome their shyness. Persistence, dear fellow parent, is key.
Show him the way. If your child is shy and is warming the proverbial bench at the sandbox, not wanting to mix with the other kids, get in there yourself. If you’re in there, it’ll feel a little safer, and as your child warms up and feels more comfortable, you can ease back. Once there, help by giving words to use when joining another child at play. Your child might not be the orchestrator of the kids joining the play, but she can learn to take a turn -- if she wants to.
Find a balance. You can’t remove your child from every uncomfortable situation; learning to deal with uncomfortable situations is part of life. But you know your child best, right? Take their social temperature. If you’ve been at the playground for 2 hours, and your child hasn’t left your side, it is probably time to go home.
Help your child learn to manage their emotions. A recent study showed that parents of timid infants who step in and comfort their child without allowing them to learn to comfort themselves have children who do not outgrow their timidity. This seems counter-intuitive that a parent shouldn’t help and comfort their child, but if you step back and look at it, it makes sense. These kids who do not have to comfort themselves and rely solely on their parents to do it for them, they do not learn to do it for themselves. Without experiencing discomfort, they do not learn to cope by themselves. Developing coping skills is an important step in learning to overcome one’s own shyness.
Emphasize creative problem-solving. As shy people, we tend to worry a lot. We're afraid things won't turn out the way we want them to and we're crushed if they don't. It's hard for us to see that failure is a natural part of learning. Instead, we do everything in our power to avoid it and we kill our creativity in the process. This is hard enough to understand as an adult; imagine how overwhelming these feelings are for your child.
One of the most important things you can teach your children is that failure provides the feedback we need to become good at the things we choose to do.
If at first we don't succeed, try try again. The ability to see our problems as challenges and failures as feedback---as information about what we need to do next---strengthens our confidence by reminding us that just because we didn't succeed at first, doesn't mean we won't succeed in the end. Teach your children to think creatively. Show them how to brainstorm--how to generate more than one solution for their problems. Help them come to see themselves as scientists whose job is to test their solutions until they find the best one. Prepare them for disappointment, but teach them to persevere until they find an answer that works. Scientists are paid to make mistakes, because that's how they succeed. Sure they get disappointed, but a good scientist doesn't give up until the failures they’ve made provide the knowledge to succeed. In our house, the motto is that we may not always win, but we always try; quitting is not an option. W may have to re-aim, and change the target a bit, but we never quit.
Build creative problem-solving into your child's life.
Get in the habit of generating multiple solutions to each problem. Three is usually enough when you're in a hurry.
Refrain from evaluating solutions until you're finished generating them. Evaluations shut down the creative process by making people defensive.
When possible, test each solution empirically. Try going home from the store four different ways to see which is fastest.
Reward you children for trying as much you reward them for succeeding.
Help your child see that life is process of steps and risks of one size or another that lead to success. Your job as a parent is to monitor and periodically adjust those steps to determine the size that's best for your child. Sometimes those steps are bigger than others, and sometimes those steps go backwards.
One last thought on shyness. You’ve done it, I am sure: You’ve called your shy guy ‘shy’ in front of him. It’s hard not to point out obvious characteristics, isn’t it? Listen, it doesn’t make you a bad guy. Understand when is labeling your child as shy is a good thing and when is it a bad thing. Almost everything you read about shyness will discourage you from labeling your child as shy. Unfortunately, this may not always be the best advice. Why? Because if your child is truly shy, it won't matter if you label your child as shy or not. Others will label your child for you and you will have no control over what they say and how it affects your child.
The key to successfully labeling your child as shy is to . . .
always pair the term shyness with something positive;
avoid using shyness as an excuse for your child's behavior which takes your child off the hook for trying;
truly believe in your child's inherent self-worth, seek out opportunities to foster his/her strengths and reward your child's efforts to grow.
Can labeling a child as shy ever be bad? Definitely!
It's fair to say that no one strategy is right for all people at all times. There will be times when you can't control the spin on the label you use to describe your child; when people are bound and determined to see your child's shyness in a negative light no matter what you say or do. In these cases, it may be best to leave well enough alone.
Not all people---parents included---understand how shy children feel. They mistake a child's anxiety for a sign weakness, aloofness, lack of motivation and intellectual disability to name just a few. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that shy children are never lazy or never have intellectual challenges. It's just that most shy children are just that--children. They want to fit in. They want to belong just like other children, but their anxiety-- not their motivation or intellectual capacity--gets in the way. Remember that, and remember that our job as parents is to guide and help our kids grow. And remember that you are not the only parent out there with a shy child. Parenting is challenging enough so let’s just do this thing together, shall we?
One last tale: my more-shy guy has grown a fear of parties. So much that he will cry and refuse to go if he is not certain he knows everyone in attendance. And heaven forbid someone at the event is speaking a different language (which will likely happen in an expat situation, right?). So we finally got him to attend one, and he had the best time. On the way home, I asked him how it was and how it made him feel. I asked him if he could please take a few minutes when we got home to make a drawing of how amazing he felt right that moment, so he could remember the next time he got an invitation just how much he likes birthday parties. He did, and we put it on the fridge. Since, I’ve caught him multiple times standing and looking at his drawing, with a little smile on his face. He’ll come over and tell me (or retell me) a detail about the party that he really enjoyed. Sometimes, the gentle nudge the child needs isn’t from a parent, but from themselves.