Four steps to understanding shy children

“Don’t worry, she doesn’t have to say hello, I can see she’s shy.”Obviously no harm is meant by a comment like this but if you’ve ever been on the receiving end, you’ll know it doesn’t exactly feel like a compliment to you or your child. The ‘s’ word often carries baggage. It might be pity (“Poor you, having to deal with your clingy limpet while my delightful child is out there working the room.”), or an implication that you forgot (or were too busy) to socialise your child. Or worst of all, the suggestion that there is something lacking or flawed in the nature of your ‘shy’ child.

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1. What is shy?

Over the last few generations we have cultivated a strange bunch of ideas around shyness in children. It probably doesn’t help that these kids don’t say much to explain or defend themselves, leaving others to define them, often inaccurately.

For a start, what we call ‘shy’ is a loosely-related group of behaviours, which can have many different causes. Some will be short-lived, some more persistent personality traits. For some children they will be driven by change, stress, or even trauma, while others will be ‘shy’ consistently across time and regardless of events. And yet kids who don’t talk much around people they don’t know, kids who tend to follow rather than lead, kids who look down and speak quietly, kids who shun the limelight – we call them all ‘shy’. The assumption that their big issues are with people and social interaction, however, may be totally off the mark.

2. What else could be going on?

Despite appearances, your child doesn’t necessarily suffer from low self-esteem or a social phobia.

Are they an introvert?

If they are an introvert, they may be just as sociable or friendly as the next kid in line, but being around lots of people or in a very stimulating environment for too long is draining for them. After a long day at school, they will often be desperate to get home for some peace and quiet, and they might turn down play dates or ignore people who talk to them for this reason.

It doesn’t mean that they need constant solitude, simply that they enjoy bursts of it because it restores them. They need regular doses of low-intensity interactions with others, and not too many demands for them to be loud, engaging, and the life of the play date. This is just the way they are wired.

Are they sensitive?

Your child could also be showing behaviour that’s right in line with a sensitive, or even highly sensitive, temperament. These kids are typically slow to warm up to new people, places, processes – in fact, just about anything. They process visual and auditory stimuli more thoroughly than others do, which is why they really take their time to assess, often from behind mum or dad’s legs, before they decide the environment is a good one to venture into. Their brains also seem to be more alert to potential danger or risk than those of non-sensitive children.

As a result they are usually reluctant to rush forward and try things, venture their opinion to the group, or make quick decisions. You can see why we assume that this is about a fear of others or their judgment, when in fact it’s better explained by the overactive assessment processes going on in the brain of the sensitive child.

Are they a mixture?

And of course just to really complicate things, your child could be their own unique mixture of these two styles. Author of The Highly Sensitive Child, Elaine Aron, estimates that 70 percent of sensitive children are introverts – a higher ratio than that of the general population, which suggests that the two are closely related but not identical. As to which factor is at play when your sensitive and/or introverted child is being ‘shy’, is virtually impossible to tease out. One thing is certain – they are not necessarily fearful or anxious about interacting with other people, and we don’t help them by assuming they are.

With an introverted or a sensitive child, encourage them to find ways of interacting with the world that suit them. They may need less time with others, fewer after-school activities, and less change and spontaneity in their day than other children seem to cope with. There’s really no problem with doing things a little bit differently if it helps your child to learn to manage their own needs, and have more energy in reserve for the people and interactions they do face.

3. Whose problem is it? Is it actually a problem?

When others raise concerns about your child’s shyness, it can help to have a mental test at the ready – is this actually a problem? And if so, whose problem is it? As parents we are deeply programmed to worry when our kids aren’t reaching their milestones or tracking along with their peers. Our culture seems to venerate the bold, the fast, and the uninhibited these days, and when we note that our child just isn’t that way, we tend to worry about their prospects in a dog-eat-dog world. If we can put our anxiety to one side, we might find it easier to discern when the problem belongs to the other person, and not our child.

Getting to know a shy kid can be a slow process

Often the other person has to be perceptive and responsive as to how to proceed. Extroverted and non-sensitive people can sometimes struggle to slow their pace down and respect the introverted and sensitive preference for slowly building a friendship based on trust. Please don’t be offended if you are extroverted or non-sensitive and get along with shy kids just fine – I know there are plenty of you out there! What I’m describing is what happens at the extreme end of the spectrum.

It’ll require getting some new tools

You might also meet people who would prefer if your shy child were more like the others because they themselves have only one style of interacting. It reminds me of the old saying, “When you’ve only got a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. The wonderful thing about having a shy child is that they require us to get some new tools! If a teacher presents a ‘problem’ to you, suggest the possibility that your child is struggling because the system they’re operating in assumes everyone is not shy. Academic testing methods that involve time pressure or being observed by the class as you answer, for example, can cause extra stress and lower performance scores for shy kids.

A shy child may have plenty to say but won’t venture into a group discussion if the unspoken rule is that you loudly push your way in. Can the system be widened to include everyone’s style? Can people be invited to contribute, rather than letting the loudest and most confident always take the lead? You’ll never find out if you never question the implication that the problem lies with your child.

4. Is there anything we can do?

Plenty of children who tend towards ‘shy’ can learn to manage the impact it has on them. A really nice theory of personality put forward by Susan Cain in her book Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, is that our personalities are like a rubber band at rest. Yes, there is a limit to how far it will go, but a lot of stretch (learning to do things outside their comfort zone) is possible. Whether or not your ‘shy’ child will stretch out to explore new ways of doing things will depend on the opportunities you can provide for them to see and label themselves in a different light.

Take care that they don’t hear themselves described as ‘shy’ too often

And don’t be afraid to challenge other’s views of them in their hearing. Grandma can handle it if you say, “Actually, I don’t see her as shy, she just likes to get to know people slowly” or, “I know that he loves being with his friends but the noise of too many playing together can be overwhelming for him”.

Life is full of opportunities to redefine ourselves through new experiences, just as long as we haven’t been typecast too early or too firmly in the role of ‘shy kid’. Keep a memory log of the occasions they stretched themselves successfully so that you can remind them later – “Remember the time you gave a speech at Grandad’s funeral? You spoke clearly and loudly, and were so proud afterwards”.

Keep a positive view of your child’s ability to relate with others

No matter how reserved, introverted, or sensitive they are, they will find life easier if they are free from hang-ups about how others view them and their communication style. Susan Cain also argues that modern Western culture has an unspoken ‘extrovert ideal’. That collectively we strive to be, and celebrate those who are, outgoing and comfortable in the limelight. Your child will probably pick up in all sorts of ways that society would prefer they be different to how they are.

As parents, our influence is vital. We have to let them know that the way they are is just fine. This can be challenging because we are often pushing them to stretch that rubber band. For the sake of their future social success, we want them to look people in the eye, and say, “Thank you very much”, and yet we want to convey complete acceptance at the same time.

I think the best way through this minefield is to be very aware of how you tackle ‘self-improvement’ with your child. What does the tone of your voice, the posture of your body, or the expression on your face say about your child when you ask them to repeat themselves a bit louder so the shopkeeper can hear them? Can they feel your impatience, your disappointment, your embarrassment, or even your anger?

I know from personal experience that the love and concern you have for your child can lead you to these places very quickly. I also know that the shame your strong emotions evoke in your child will make it completely impossible for them to learn a new skill. They need our confidence, our encouragement, and our positivity. They also need us to persist. For ‘shy’ kids it is easier to hang back, it is easier to say nothing, and it is easier to avoid eye contact. We do need to keep working at these things and not give up on them.

So can we change our children? Yes, to a certain extent we can coach them to do things that are difficult but important. And we should do what we can to help them mix easily with others and speak up for themselves. But I think we should put even more energy into teaching our children and others that there is more than one way to be in this world. The contributions of sensitive, introverted, and shy people might be quieter and less obvious than those of others, but they are no less valuable. Every classroom, friendship group, workplace, and family will benefit from learning to accommodate a little bit of ‘shy’.

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