Many children are labeled shy. If you understand what this term really means, you may decide that it's not such a negative quality after at all.
Shyness can be a help or a handicap to a child, depending partly on how it's
1. When shyness helps a child
Shyness is a personality trait, not a
fault. Some of the nicest people I've ever known are shy. These persons tend
to be attentive listeners, private people who exude a welcome presence even
without saying a word. Shyness is what attracted me to Martha. We met at a
fraternity party in my senior year in medical school. She was standing in the
midst of a bunch of my boisterous frat brothers. Everyone was talking but her.
She listened. Her eyes met everyone else's. She smiled and made her quiet
presence felt. She wasn't outgoing, but she made all the extroverts around her
comfortable. I thought, "What a nice person to be around." There was nothing
flashy about her, yet her body language and sweet demeanor said "There is a
person who's nice to be next to." I called her the next day and the rest is
There is no need to say apologetically, "He's shy," especially in front of
your child. There is nothing wrong, and a lot right, with being
shy. Many people don't understand shyness and equate being shy with having
a problem. They believe a shy child must suffer from poor self-image. Most of
the time this label couldn't be more unfair. Many shy children have a solid
self-concept. They have an inner peace that shines; if the extroverts
would be quiet long enough they would notice its glow.
Parents still worry when their child clams up in a crowd. Is he just shy or
is there a serious problem? Here's how to tell. A shy child with healthy self-
worth makes eye-to-eye contact, is polite, and seems happy with herself. She is
just quiet. Her behavior is generally good; she is a nice child to be around,
and people are comfortable in her presence.
Some "shy" children are deep-thinking and cautious. They are slow to warm up
to strangers. They study that person to see if the relationship is worth the
effort. Shy children often have such inner peace that their shyness is one way
of protecting it. Our sixth child, Matthew, is one of the most peaceful, happy
children to ever live on the face of this earth. Matt is cautious in his
friendships, but once he makes a friend it's for life. He is a reserved person
with a lot of valuable inner stuff for others to discover. He warms up slowly
to new acquaintances, but once comfortable in your presence he's charming.
Matthew is just a nice child to be around. (Peter, our third child, is like
Shortly after Matthew started school, we had our first parent-teacher
conference. The teacher said, "Matthew sure is shy, isn't he?" "Yes, Matt is
reserved," we explained. Later in the dialogue the subject came up again, "Matt
is very quiet." "Yes, he is very focused," we answered. As the discussion of
Matthew continued, this teacher soon realized we saw Matthew's traits as
positive. As the school year progressed, the teacher grew in respect for this
quiet, peaceful, blond-haired boy in row two. Matthew was a nice student to be
2. When shyness is a handicap
In some children, shyness is the
manifestation of inner problems, not inner peace. This child is more than shy,
he withdraws. He avoids eye-to-eye contact and has a lot of behavioral
problems. People are not comfortable in his presence. When you delve into this
little person, you discover he operates from anger and fear instead of peace and
trust. When you delve deeper, you often find he has a lot to be angry about.
3. Hiding behind the shy veil
Some children hide behind the shy
label so they don't have to reveal a self they don't like. It's safer not to
show anything, so they retreat into a protective shell. The "shy" label becomes
an excuse for not developing social skills and a reason for not exercising them.
The unmotivated child can use "shy" as a defense against trying harder and an
excuse for staying at the same level of skill development. For these children,
shyness is a handicap, reinforcing their weak self-esteem. To cure the shyness,
you must build up the self-esteem. This child needs parents he can trust, who
discipline in a way that does not lead to internalized anger and self-dislike.
4. Little Miss Outward turns inward
What about the bubbly two-year-
old who smiles and waves at every stranger, but who at age three turns into a
clam? Mothers often worry about what they did to cause such a personality
reversal. The answer usually is "nothing." Before age two, many children are
spontaneous. They act before they think, especially in social relations.
Between two and four years of age, children go through a second phase of
stranger anxiety, as they become afraid of people
they don't know.
I frequently experience "shy" scenes with new patients in my office. When I enter the examining room the child lowers
his chin to his chest, semi-closes his eyes, puts his thumb into his mouth, and
darts behind his mother, clinging to her legs trying to hide. I make no attempt
to go after the child, but first greet the mother in an easy, friendly way. As
the mother becomes comfortable relating to me, the child listens in on our
socializing. Hopefully, he'll decide "He's okay with mom, so he's okay with
me." If the child doesn't reappear, I make a game out of the moment: "Where's
Tommy? I sure would like to see him. I guess he isn't here. I'll come back
later." I go out of the room for a moment to give the child space, then
reenter, usually to a child at ease. Social retreating is a normal stage of
development. Before you apologize to your relatives, blush from embarrassment,
or call a behavioral therapist, be patient. Give your child encouragement and
space and he will soon blossom again.
Parents wonder what to do about their child's shyness. Is it just a passing
phase? Should the child be encouraged to become more outgoing? Is there a more
serious underlying problem? Here's what to do.
5. Hug your little blessing
First, recognize that you are blessed
with a sensitive, deeply caring, reserved child who is slow to warm up to
strangers, approaches social relationships cautiously, but generally seems to be
a happy person. Hug your quiet child. The world will be a more gentle place
because of him or her.
6. The harder you pull, the more the child retreats
It's tempting to
want to help the shy child. But be careful—the more you pull, the more some
children recoil. You can't pull a child out of shyness. It's better to create
a comfortable environment that lets her social personality develop naturally.
Never label a child "shy."
On hearing this a child feels something's
wrong with her, and this will make her feel more shy. If you must use words to
describe your child use "private" or "reserved." These are nicer and more
accurate terms. Labels also affect the way others treat your child. Calling
her "shy" can make them over solicitous, as though there is something they
should do to "help" or fix it. If you are going to visit Aunt Nancy and you
want your quiet child to make a good first impression, avoid the temptation to
say, "Don't be so shy, Aunt Nancy won't bite." That's guaranteed to make him
clam up. The already self-conscious child is likely to become even more shy.
Tell the child ahead of time what's expected of him, a simple "hi" and quiet,
polite behavior. Don't ask more than you can reasonably expect. Keep the
attention off the child, and as he gets comfortable, trust that Aunt Nancy will
come to appreciate him. Encourage your child to bring along one of her favorite
activities (for example, art supplies or a board game) that Aunt Nancy can use
as a bridge to communication.
7. Don't put the little performer on the spot
The grandparents are
visiting, and you can't wait to have five-year-old Johnny play the piano for
them. Don't spring this request on Johnny without warning. The young showman
may run from your request, leave you apologizing, and leave grandmother
wondering why he's so shy. Instead, privately ask your child's permission
first: "You play so well and grandmother loves to hear you play, would you
please play a little piece for her?" This respects a child's comfort level at
showing a skill in public. Some children are born performers—give them an
audience and they're on stage. Others guard their skills cautiously and must
gradually become comfortable as skills develop. First, they are comfortable
playing the piano for themselves. Next, they play for parents (because they
will still applaud even if the child makes mistakes). It takes a much bigger
leap of faith to play Mozart for company.
8. The mouthy mother and the mousy child
The combination of an
extroverted, domineering mother and a more reserved child is a set-up for
shyness. Susy, a private, polite, and approachable five-year-old and her mother
were in my office for Susy's school-entry exam. I asked Susy if she had any
pains or problems she'd like to tell me about. "Susy, this is your special
check-up," I began. As soon as Susy opened her mouth to tell me her concerns,
her mother interrupted. "She feels..." said her mother, and went on to tell me
in detail. I asked the child, "And Susy, is that how you feel?" Within a
millisecond of Susy's first syllable, mother interrupted again, "And she
also..." As this became Susy's mother's check-up instead of Susy's, the
previously happy little girl turned into a withdrawn little mouse, cowering more
and more as her mother's pitch escalated. Toward the end of the check-up, mom
chided her daughter, "Now, Susy don't be shy, tell the doctor what bothers you."
Susy clamed up during the rest of the exam, her spirit squelched by her mouthy
mother. As Susy left the room with the nurse to get her immunizations, her
mother leaned over to me confiding, "Doctor, she's so shy. I don't know what to
do." Susy's mother, a deeply caring and committed mother, didn't intentionally
override Susy's social development, that was just her temperament. Susy didn't
try to be shy, she was just born quiet. But this mismatch of temperaments kept
Susy from developing communication skills (at least when in the presence of her
mother) and her mother from learning listening skills. Without passing judgment
on which temperament types are "better," I explained how some temperament
matches impede development. I suggested that if she became more reserved around
Susy, Susy would become more outgoing around her. Susy's next check-up went
much better. Her mother sat quietly behind Susy and nodded approvingly when her