My children have always attracted labels. When they were babies they were “clingy.” When they were a little older they were “mama’s boys!” Now their teachers tell us they are “such quiet students.” Total strangers think nothing of saying things like “What are you? Shy?!” As if shyness is akin to leprosy.
It’s not. Shyness often accompanies an introvert who hasn’t quite learned how to navigate her need for solitude and companionship. And truth be told, I think shyness is a really wonderful quality. I never had to worry about my toddlers disappearing on the playground. I’m sure my preschooler is not taunting anyone. And will my kids ever get in trouble at school? They would, literally, rather die.
And then I read the wonderful book Quiet: the Power of an Introvert by Susan Cain. Reading it reaffirmed my belief that really, being an introvert is a wonderful thing. Ms. Cain’s advice to “[d]elight in the originality of their minds. Take pride in the strength of their consciences and the loyalty of their friendships. Don’t expect them to follow the gang. Encourage them follow their passions instead,” was exactly what I needed to hear. Still waters run deep is a beautiful promise.
But, as wonderful as being an introvert is, it also comes with few tales of BFF’s, and play times spent watching timidly from behind my legs instead of joining into the playground fray. As they’ve gotten older I see my children’s shyness becoming more entrenched instead of waning. And I’m a little haunted by the image of my shy child facing the lunchroom full of children with no where to sit, a recess spent with nose buried in the book, an answer left unsaid because her stomach is twisted into knots.
Then my daughter came home after her first day of 3rd grade and declared this is going to be a long year because she has no friends in her class. When I say, “Well, what about making a new friend?” She crumples into tears and says, “I’m not like you! I can’t just walk up to someone and say hi to the whole world. I have to wait for someone to want to be friends with me before I can be friends with them. And that’s never going to happen.”
That’s the root of the problem. Often living shyly is living reactionary. Instead of making your life the way you want it, you are at the mercy of the butterflies in your stomach. And once again, I turned to Ms. Cain for some advice:
“If your children are quiet, help them make peace with new situations and new people, but otherwise, let them be themselves.”
So I resolved to help my daughter make peace with new situations. Surely there must be a way to preserve all of the wonderful parts of being introverted while helping my shy daughter enjoy 3rd grade. I sent an email to a pediatric psychologist named Dr. Deborah Gilman.
She was very reassuring. After all, shyness is a totally normal part of being a human. So when should I start to worry?
She replied: “In general, the intensity of the fear, the level of avoidance, and the impairment of functioning that the shy behavior causes in a person’s life distinguishes social anxiety disorder from shyness.”
So shy kid will be nervous to go to school, but a kid with social anxiety disorder will get short of breath, start to shake and sweat and literally be unable to calm down. She will know that she is overreacting but can’t stop herself. So helping my children feel in control of their anxiety seems to be the key. So how can I help them control these fears?
Dr. Gilman also told me that I could “model enjoyable social experiences by having fun with friends and others in social settings.” This made me think about the way I engage with other parents at the playground or strangers. I try to keep them light and breezy and not mutter under my breath, “Don’t come over here” (which is how I feel sometimes!). When we have friends come over, I make sure I don’t fixate on the preparations (like cleaning the bathroom–what friend cares if your bathroom is spotless??) and lose sight of the fun.
- Role play
Along with modeling is role playing. Dr. Gilman suggested we “take turns pretending what to do in social situations, practice short greetings and allow time prior to new situations for practice (maybe in the car).” Remember that non-verbal social skills, like waving, smiling, thumbs-up, high five can be less threatening for a shy kid and are totally acceptable forms of communication.
Then after we have role played in private, I can help my child remember what we practiced by prompting them in public verbally (like “your name is Emma” ) or physically (like touching her on the shoulder to indicate it’s her turn). But Dr. Gilman warns, “There should never be a punishment for not using these skills, but praise for using good skills will reinforcing the socially appropriate behavior. Skills that are practiced become more automatic and give shy children a greater sense of control over situations that produce discomfort.”
And I don’t have to apologize for my child’s shyness. Kids hear that subtle criticism. Just say “sometimes she is slow to warm up” or “needs some time to get comfortable” and be optimistic that she will, eventually, be comfortable in a new situation.
- Create opportunity to interact in a non-threatening way
I learned early on that my kids liked one-on-on playdates much more than the free-for-all of the afternoon park. So I felt like I was doing a good job on this. But a large part of my child’s day is at school. Dr. Gilman had some very good specific suggestions that I could take the teacher at our next parent/teaching meeting. I suspect that my son’s teacher already does many of these things, but it gives us a starting point. Dr. Gilman suggested I ask the teacher to:
- Sit my child near a friendly classmate
- Set up a reward system with a series of graduate expectations (raising hand, reading aloud, telling the answer to a friend, answering aloud to the class, etc.)
- Minimize stress or embarrassment, like not cold-calling on the child or using her work as an example
- Engage the child in special activities, like teacher’s helper or line leader.
- Keeping a consistent structure in class with a predictable schedule. Ask the teacher to communicate that schedule to you and your child.
- Honor the need for interaction and solitude
Dr. Gilman reinforced the need for letting my kids be in charge of some of their own time. While I’m arranging a playdate, I need to balance that with some solitary unstructured time as well. As I thought about that I realized the whole family needs to understand the importance of alone time. (I know I love some alone time in the day!) As Dr. Gilman says, “Teach children the importance of both having solitude and interaction” and make space for both.
As I thought about this, I realized that hanging out at home, with your brother, isn’t solitary time. So we’re trying a 30 minute ”quiet time” this summer, for everyone in the family where the only rules are you can’t be on the computer and you have to be alone. I’m hoping it will recharge everyone.
- Normalize their experience and honor their strengths
Sometimes, I have found myself trying to downplay a situation, hoping it will make my child feel better. (“You don’t need to be nervous. Some of your friends will be there!”) But honestly, who hasn’t felt nervous when they were about to enter a room full of people? Dr. Gilman reminded me that it’s better to listen to my child’s concerns, and then normalize her shy experiences by validating her feelings with something like, “I used to get nervous for the first day of school, too” or “It’s normal to be nervous about trying something new!”
Along the same lines, Dr. Gilman suggests naming some of the qualities that go along with being shy (like being observant and aware of the social environment), and reminding my child these are great friendship skills.
- Be patient
Dr. Gilman closed with these kind words: “Be patient with your shy child, you will see her bloom slowly over time. With kindness and allowing her to proceed at her own pace, you will increase a sense of self-assuredness and confidence.”
Self-assuredness and confidence–that is all I want for my children. I want my daughter to know whether she is in a room full of strangers or friends or even by herself, that she has something wonderful to offer the world. I want her to be cozy in her own skin and eventually be able to find those true friends, the friends that always help us see the best in ourselves. It probably won’t happen in 3rd grade, but I hope it will happen one day.
QUESTION: Do you have a child who is shy? How can you best support them?
CHALLENGE: Try to break the habit of pathologizing shyness in your own kids or other kids.
Image from Shutterstock with graphics by Anna Jenkins.
Originally published May 19, 2015.