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 handled.
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 beautiful history.
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 this, too.)
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 around.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 child spoke.