Understanding Shyness: How to Help a Child Who Is Shy
Jake is that kid on the playground who waits for others to tell him he can join in the game. Sometimes, it seems it’s much easier for him to be alone in his own world than to talk to others. He definitely doesn’t enjoy talking to people he’s not familiar with. He’s quite talkative at home, though. He also doesn’t enjoy being the center of attention. And when he is, he hesitates to speak up; he tends to mumble and easily gets confused. He’s only comfortable talking about Math because he loves it. For anything else, even if he knows the answer, he seems afraid to say it.
They don’t quite understand why.
Jake’s parents say he’s very shy.
Such a little word, a simple and familiar adjective, that carries so much meaning.
Shyness is often linked to anxiety, a lack of confidence, or low social intelligence. It is often connected to those experiences where you might have felt uncomfortable, embarrassed, or socially inadequate. It leads people to avoid situations in which they perceive some sort of a threat.
Many people have unproven but strongly-held theories that shy people don’t have much of a chance of succeeding in life. It seems as though the world favors dynamic extroverts who connect easily with others. Consequently, parents often seek professional help when they feel that their children might be behaving in a way they perceive as shy.
Where does shyness come from?
There are many theories which attempt to explain how shyness develops.
Some argue there is something “built in” that makes us shy and others claim we might have picked it up by watching somebody important to us act in a similar manner. Some might say that we are, from an early age, aware of our shortcomings, which makes us feel insecure in the presence of a group. Generally speaking, “shyness” could denote a feeling of inadequacy in regard to certain expectations (i.e. Everybody is good at sports. I am the only one who’s clumsy).
But we’ll take another path.
Let’s not look at the theories. Let’s focus simply on understanding each child individually.
How not to be supportive
Let’s start with how you certainly won’t show understanding.
Describing your child as shy everywhere you go and interpreting every single behavior that includes withdrawing from the group as shyness won’t help. Also, telling them not to blush every time they do might be a bad idea. Making excuses for them every time they stall, get confused, or refuse to talk to people might not be the best way to support them.
“He takes after his father. He’s not talkative either.” Comparing your child to someone else or speaking about their behavior as if it were a fixed trait isn’t going to be of much use. You want your child to believe they can change something they don’t like about themselves, right? So don’t make them feel they can’t.
Understanding ourselves as parents
Now, here’s how you can help.
Explore why it is that your child might be acting in a way you think of as shy.
Ask yourself the following questions so you can understand better.
It’s important to be aware of your own thoughts and impressions.
- How do I know that my child is behaving shyly?
(Recognize the specific behaviors. It’s important to distinguish specific behaviors from our interpretations of those behaviors.)
- When did I first notice my child acting this way?
(The behavior could be seen a reaction or response to a specific event in the past.)
- Why do I think this might be a problem?
(It is important to acknowledge our own understanding of the way our child is behaving and what we see as the effects of that behavior.)
- What do I think are the main reasons for my child’s shyness?
(We need to take into consideration the variety of different factors that might be influencing the child to behave that way.)
- What are the consequences of my child not changing?
(Recognizing and understanding your own fears and worries is one of the most important steps.)
- When is this shyness most apparent?
(You can try to recognize specific triggers by looking at specific situations.)
- Are there any situations where the shyness eases?
(What is it about these situations which differs them from those in which your child is extremely shy?)
- How do I react when I notice my child being shy?
(What we say and do has a significant bearing on how our children behave.)
- How does my child respond to my reaction?
(The response is often a reflection of how the child sees our reaction.)
- Is there anyone else in the family who acts the way my child does?
(“Shyness” is often a learned behavior.)
- Have I ever asked my child why they are behaving like this?
(If not, why haven’t I?)
- Do I understand how my child perceives the situations in which they are shy?
(How does the world look through the eyes of my child?)
Sometimes, we might be too emotionally invested to be able to answer these questions and reflect upon our answers. But that’s what Coaches are for. The Coaches navigate you through this exploration process with their questions.
Understanding your child
Now, all the above questions can be modified to help your child express their perspective, too.
What’s important is to understand that this “shy” voice inside your child, even when it’s quite dominant, is just one of the many voices inside them. Your child might take the lead in some situations, even though in many more they decide to stay on the side. Help your child recognize that part of themselves that keeps them stuck. Look at those situations where you see the same behavior and ask the child what they have in common. It might be that the common denominator is a trigger for that part of you that says “You’re going to embarrass yourself”, “You’ll fail” or “Nobody likes to be around you”. Don’t disregard or ignore that part. Try to understand why it’s there.
Frequently, when we detect a behavior that we “don’t like” to see in our children we try to find ways to eliminate it. However, every single behavior has its own internal logic and a purpose which needs to be understood. Shyness can often protect a child from getting involved in situations where they feel they might get hurt.
Again, our emotional bias sometimes makes this hard to do. We have the impulse to protect our child from feeling bad, which is why, when they share a thought such as “Nobody likes me”, we’ll try to convince them that’s not true. The Coach would continue with questions such as “How do you know that?” or “When did you notice that?”
Suggestions on what to do
Each segment in this section is a suggestion on what you could do.
Understanding is always the first step.
There are specific strategies on how to help a child open up and feel free to explore their actions in everyday situations. Feel free to use whichever seems to make the most sense for your child.
- Give your child a chance to practice getting by in unfamiliar situations. This doesn’t mean you should expose your child to a frustrating situation unprepared, and show them over and over again how they’re not managing it. It means that you should take them with you, teach them and make suggestions, and then let them deal with the situations on their own, step by step. For instance, you could take your child to the park and tell them: “Why don’t you go up to that kid over there and ask: ‘Do you want to play with me?’ Mom can’t play with you now. It’ll be much more fun with another child. Just go over there and try it. I’ll be right here waiting for you.” Encourage your child to participate in interactions with others.
- There’s no need to describe your child as shy in front of the child. A “shy child” can easily become a role children slip into and start playing without wanting to relinquish it. Any chance to adopt more easy-going behavior should be supported and rewarded. Help your child explore some other sides of themselves. The creative one? The playful one?
- Show your child that you want to understand them. Try to understand the way your child sees other children in their peer group and how they think those children see them. In case your child tells you that they know other children are mocking them or that they see other children as evil and bad, try not to be defensive but consider other options you could take. How would your child like to be seen by other children? Why can or can’t they achieve that? Why do they think that the way they are is exclusively good or bad (depending on how they think of themselves)? Use the answers your child gives you as a way to continue the conversation and better understand, and not as a reason to attack another child or condemn other parents.
- Check – maybe your child simply prefers playing alone as opposed to playing in a group. Try to understand why. What wouldn’t they have if they played in a group? What would they lose if they did this? What are the risks of playing in a group?
- Ask your child without judgment: “It sometimes seems you’re avoiding other kids and don’t want to talk with people very much (describe the “symptoms” of shyness). Is there a reason you do this?”
- Pay attention to the way your child perceives the situation in which they are usually shy. How do they describe it? What do they feel? While the child is telling you about this, be aware of your own expectations regarding your child’s behavior.
Bear in mind that every child is different.
That is why the path to helping your child is understanding them.
The reasons why somebody acts in a certain way are highly individualized. Don’t generalize.
We attribute so many meanings to that simple adjective “shy”. Let’s understand those meanings.
by Ana Jovanovic
Coach at Nobel Coaching & Tutoring
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