Parenting The Shy Child

 

I tell parents who attend my shyness classes that through their presence they are giving a gift to their children.

"Why?" you ask.  "A gift?"

Yes, a gift.  You see, shyness robs people of opportunities in life.  And while many children outgrow shyness with time, for those of us who carry our shyness forward into adulthood, life becomes one series of missed opportunities after another.  Anything you can do to ease your child's shyness will, in turn, decrease the number of opportunities your child misses over the course of his/her life.  And that, is truly a gift.

So then, what can a parent do?

Identify the nature of your child's shyness. Children are shy in different ways for different reasons. Understanding the nature of your child's shyness will help you develop a program geared towards your child's specific needs. Is your child shy in groups? At parties? Meeting new people? In novel situations? Or, pretty much everywhere? Does your child have trouble eating in public? Playing with other children? Making phone calls? Or, is your child only shy when s/he has to make a presentation in front of the class at school? Knowing the nature of you child's shyness will help you identify the specific skills your child needs to be more at ease in social situations.

Sometimes, though, children struggle with more than shyness. There are a number of conditions that masquerade as, or can lead to, shyness---many of which require professional attention. Some children struggle with non--verbal learning disabilities or Asperger's Syndrome which interfere with their ability to read social cues and understand how to enter and exit play or answer questions at an appropriate level), other children struggle with extreme anxiety, while still others have difficulty establishing emotional bonds with other people. The good news is that most of these conditions benefit from supportive structured environments that emphasize the development of social skills, strategies for managing anxiety, impulses and the ability to both read and relate to other people on an emotional level. The specific nature of the social skills and treatment strategies, however, is likely to vary with your child's needs. When in doubt seek professional help from someone who has a track record of experience in this area.

Role model confident social behavior. Children learn by watching the people around them. Parents that means you! With time, your ability to approach others and put them at ease can help to put your child at ease, too.

       Do . . .

  • Go first in social situations. Be the first person to say "Hi," to introduce yourself or to strike up conversations.
  • Make a list of the kinds of things you would like your child to feel comfortable doing (e.g., talking with other children, asking for help from store clerks, making phone calls, etc) and make a point of doing these things in front of your child.
  • Be friendly. Routinely smile, say high and greet the people you see as you go through your day.
  • Compliment others often. Notice what you like about people (friends, family and strangers alike). Tell a stranger you like their hat or a friend how wonderful their dinner was.
  • Make an effort to help other people when you see they are in need. Open doors for people, pick things up when people drop them or offer to carry things for friends.
  • Role model taking risks and learning from them. Help your children learn by making positive comments about how you felt while you did things. Things like: "I thought that would be harder than it was." "That wasn't much fun, but I'm glad I did it and got it out of the way. At least now I don't have to worry about it." Or, "That didn't go as well as I thought it would, but at least I know what to do next time."
  • Enroll in social skills classes and let your children know that you're going. Bring back the things you learn from class and share them with your family and friends. I routinely encourage parents (shy or not) who take my social skills classes to practice their new found handshake, conversation and introduction skills with their children, friends and family. Don't be surprised if your new skills make great party conversation, too. Most people struggle with social skills and are eager learn what you know so they can try it out themselves. Show your children that learning new skills from a class is a good thing.

       Don't . . .

  • Cross the street to avoid people you are too nervous to see.
  • Embarrass your child in public.
  • Criticize people in public.
  • Berate yourself for having failed when you try things and they don't turn out the way you would like.
  • Berate your children when they make a mistake.

But what if you're shy yourself? And there's a good chance you are--an almost 50/50 chance. Given that nearly 50% of adults in the United States are believed to be shy, it stands to reason that nearly 50% of children have at least one shy parent and somewhere in the neighborhood of 25% of children have two shy parents. It's hard to role model socially confident behavior for your children when you're struggling with shyness yourself. All you can do is your best.

  • Start by modeling little things for your children like opening doors for other people when you go to the store or into restaurants.
  • Take advantage of opportunities to practice being assertive in front of your children by asking how much longer it will be before you're seated at restaurants or asking sales clerks how an appliance works.
  • Make an extra effort to practice social skills with your children at home . There's a good chance that teaching handshakes, introductions and conversation skills to your children will enhance your skills as well.

Fortunately, role modeling social skills for your children--even if they're in the privacy of your own home-- can help your child improve his/her social skills and is likely to improve yours, as well. 

Teach social skills early.   When it comes to social skills, the earlier you begin teaching them the better. The prevalence of shyness among children is believed to increase with age--- from roughly 20% of children in grade school to 50% of children by the time they reach adolescence. Why not give your child a head start by teaching the kinds of social skills that can stack the cards in their favor?

  • Arrange play dates for your children when they are young and seek out safe places for your children to interact with others and practice social skills as they get older (e.g., volunteer work, tutoring younger children, clubs and other structured activities with supportive group leaders).
  • Teach your children how to enter and exit groups and how to read other people's signals (see Recommended Readings for books on how to do this).
  • Help your children understand what it takes to make and keep a good friend. I particularly like the book How Kids Make Friends . . . Secrets For Making Lots of Friends No Matter How Shy You Are While written for children, most adults could benefit from this book, as well. It's not that we don't know the material, it's just that we get so busy it's easy to forget to use it.
  • Practice social skills at home. Buy an etiquette book and schedule an etiquette day once a week/month/quarterly (whatever works for you) during which you practice social skills as a family---from setting the table and the proper use of tableware to saying hello, shaking hands and introducing family members to one another. Practice smiling for a day, complimenting each other for a day or shaking each other's hands each time you greet each other for a day. Make learning social skills a natural part of your life so that your children don't feel funny taking classes and asking questions as they grow up.
  • Make a game of practicing social skills outside your home. Give family members points for saying "hello" to service people, shaking hands when they meet people and taking turns asking store clerks for help. Make a list of target behaviors you want to practice before you leave home.

Check out the Skykids.com website. It's full of great tips to help your child learn to be social and things you might want to practice with your children at home. I've linked you to the "Making Friends" page for kids, but parents would do well to glance over this page, as well, along with other pages throughout the site designed specifically for parents. Also, check out the Manners for Kids (and parents), page of the Family Education section of the Learning Network site. While this page has a disciplinary feel to it, much of the material is still very relevant. And finally, check out the books listed under the Recommended Readings and Shyness Websites pages of this website.

I know this may seem like a lot of work---especially for single parents struggling to get through the day---but getting started can be the hardest part. Start by buying one book packed with lots of ideas that relate to your child's needs or surf the internet for suggestions. Next, pick one social skill or area you want to work on at a time. It's surprising how something as simple as helping your child learn to smile and say "hi" to other children can make a difference.

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.

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. What scientist do you know that solves life's riddles on the first try? 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 s/he's made provide the knowledge s/he needs to succeed. Thomas Edison was said to have tried thousands of filaments before he found one that worked to make a light bulb. And oh, by the way, did you know he was shy, too?

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. Call three Chinese restaurants on Saturday night and see which one has the best prices.
  • 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 our another that---over time---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. And, if as a parent you do a really good job, you may find that, with practice, your child is able to raise the size of his/her steps to higher and higher levels.

Help your child identify talents and hobbies that make him/her feel special. The more things we do, the more interesting we become to ourselves and other people---our self-esteem grows, we have more things to talk about and, if nothing else, the activities give our brains a little exercise.

Encourage your children to develop passions early in life. Even if they don't like the first few things they try, 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.

Now granted, getting shy children to do things can be difficult. If your child felt comfortable doing things, s/he wouldn't be shy. But because s/he is shy, odds are your child avoids precisely those things that could help him/her overcome his/her shyness.

  • 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 his/her own age.; For example, teaching your child to kick a ball around the backyard might increase his/her 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 an musical instrument might start off as a solitary exercise, but lead to your child's playing in the school band.

Help your child learn to manage his/her emotions.   Harvard researcher, Jerome Kagan, identified infants exhibiting shy timid temperaments at birth and followed them over time. What he found was very interesting. Six months later, some of the infants appeared to have outgrown their timidity. But why? Kagan observed that parents of infants that outgrew their timidity were more likely to help their children learn to cope with small upsets, while parents of infants who remained timid were more likely to comfort their children through their upsets.

In some ways, Dr. Kagan's findings fly in the face of good intentions. Of course you want to comfort your children. What parent wants to see his/her child suffer? How can you ignore your child's pain? But if you stop and think about it, Kagan's findings make a lot of sense. We know that the more we pay attention to other people's behavior, the more likely they are to repeat that behavior in our presence---independent of whether we like their behavior or not. Researchers demonstrated this years ago with college students who manipulated their teachers' behavior in the classroom with no more than their attention. And so it is with children---the more attention you pay to your child's behavior, the more rewards they will derive from it. Unfortunately, that means the comfort you show your child when s/he is upset may backfire---teaching your children to show, if not feel, more of the upset you were meaning to squelch.

So, what can a parent do?

Well, for starters, don't stop comforting your child!   Not only would that be cruel, but all of us need comfort from time to time-- adults and children, as well. Simply make an effort to evaluate the effects of your comfort on your child's behavior to determine when your comfort is helping and when it is hurting. And, should you decide that some of your comfort hurts, simply shift the nature of your support from comforting your child to helping him/her learn to cope.  Never withdraw your comfort cold turkey.

  • Seek out opportunities to reward (i.e., praise, pay attention to) your child's coping efforts no matter how small.
  • Avoid comforting every little upset your child experiences.
  • Do comfort genuine concerns that are beyond your child's ability to manage...
  • Suggest solutions and reward your children's efforts to implement the solutions, even if their efforts are unsuccessful...
  • Encourage your children to find their own solutions to problems (see teaching creative problem-solving above) and acknowledge their ability to so.
  • Let your children work out some of their problems on their own, even if they are uncomfortable doing it. Keep a watchful eye and don't intervene unless necessary.
  • Teach stress management techniques from an early age.

Help your children understand that "feelings" like "failures" are something to learn from. They're signals that, like traffic lights, direct our lives. When they're green our feelings are good and it's business as usual. When they're yellow, we may be feeling a bit shaky. It's best to slow down and proceed with caution. But should they turn red, it's a sign that something isn't working and it's simply a matter of stopping and rethinking what we're doing to come up with a better plan.

Encourage your child to feel what s/he feels. Never tell your child it's wrong to cry or that s/he's not feeling what s/he's feeling. Teach your child to know his/her emotions, accept them as natural, know that hurt doesn't last forever and that with time they, too, can learn the skills to cope.

Teach tolerance and respect for others. Shy people are notoriously judgmental--both of themselves and others. The more judgmental you are as a parent, the more opportunity your children will have to learn to internalize those judgments even though you may have intended to direct them at someone else. When shy children overhear you criticizing other people's hair, wardrobe, job, lifestyle or personality, they assume that's what everyone does--i.e., criticize others. They learn that going out in public means you will be continuously judged. What's more, by judging other people harshly, your child may come to believe that your are judging him/her harshly as well. In time, their world can become an unsafe place..

Modeling tolerance and respect for others, despite their shortcomings, teaches children that people don't have to be perfect to be worthwhile.

  • Teach your child what is right about people, not just what is wrong.
  • Compliment others often.
  • When disappointed in something another person does, talk about the "behavior" that disappointed you and, whenever possible, avoid labeling the "person."

When disappointed in something another person does, talk about the "behavior" that disappointed you and, whenever possible, avoid labeling the "person.".

When it comes to using criticism around shy children, remember . . . "less is more!" The more forgiving you are of others, the more forgiving your children are likely to be of themselves.

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.

Consider the alternative---the best defense is a good offense approach. Taking the initiative and labeling your child yourself allows you to shape the meaning of the term shyness----both for your child and the people around him/her. Being shy doesn't have to mean that something is wrong with your child. It simply means that your child is uncomfortable in social situations. And while some children struggle with a biological predisposition to social discomfort, many children simply lack the skills, experience and/or confidence necessary to be at their best when they are around other people. But whatever the cause of your child's shyness, remember, it's often the "spin" that you put on the label and not the label itself that determines how others relate to your child.

Saying things like: "Sarah's a little shy when she first meets people, but you should see her dance. Wow!" or, "I guess John takes after Albert Einstein. He was shy too, you know. But they both have an incredible passion for science," not only presents shyness in a positive light, but it also provides others with the cues they need to strike up a conversation with your child. For a list of successful shy people see the Shy Celebrities page of this website.)

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. If you are unable to convince others of this--or if you are parent and are unable to convince yourself--it may be better to refrain from labeling your child as shy until you are confident that your label will have a positive affect.

When not to label you child as shy . . .

  • If you believe that shyness makes a child fundamentally inferior to other children.
  • If you have reason to believe that putting a positive spin on your child's shyness won't change other people's view of your child's shyness or your child's view of him/herself.
  • If you believe that people will misuse the information.
  • If your child is using his/her shyness as an excuse for not trying.

Seek qualified professional help as necessary.  While many children outgrow their shyness, many others carry it forward with them into adulthood. If your child is struggling---particularly if your child is challenged by a non-verbal learning disability or if you have a history of anxiety disorders, depression or substance abuse in your family---consider getting professional help. The right support can help your child's shyness become just one small blip in the course of his/her development. In many cases, it will be fine to start your search for help by surfing the web, reading books, talking with other parents of shy children and/or taking classes. But should these avenues fail or should you want more immediate help for your child, it's best to consult a qualified professional who has expertise and is familiar with resources in this area.


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Disclaimer --- This site is provided as is without any express or implied warranties. While every effort has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in on this site, the author assumes no responsibility for errors or omissions, or for damages resulting from the use of the information contained herein. This site is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and/or counseling.

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