Shyness can be one of childhood’s most painful afflictions. As a parent, your reaction to a child’s so-called “shy” behaviour may range from passivity to paranoia. You hope she’ll grow out of it; you tell her to be a brave little girl; or perhaps you blame yourself and spend a fortune to find a “cure”.
However, experts explain that shyness isn’t always a problem. Stress or fear of new situations is a natural part of growing up – even the most self-assured child feels anxious sometimes.
“Shyness only becomes a problem when it causes a child – or those close to her – significant distress, or interferes with her ability to get on with life,” says educational psychologist Belinda Farre. This includes hampering your child’s capacity to love and be loved, to learn and play, or to achieve future scholastic and social success. She might also miss out on opportunities to extend herself.
What’s important to remember is that if your child is happy being who she is as an individual, then being what society labels “shy” isn’t a problem at all.
Facing the facts
Understanding the nature of shyness is the first step towards addressing it compassionately. Psychologists define shyness as the reluctance to enter into, and interact in, normal social situations, such as being at school or birthday parties. In short, says Belinda, it’s a lack of confidence in entering the world.
“Shyness can range from a mild lack of confidence and a need for time to warm up, to difficulty talking outside the home, a refusal to attend school or parties and extreme difficulty separating from parents,” she says.
Consultant educational psychologist Anne Christine Salter explains that people tend to apply their own meanings to words, including the concept of shyness. “It is defined as being not at ease in the company of others, wary and easily frightened – but this must apply to situations where one wouldn’t expect an individual to be experiencing these emotions.”
Causes and consequences
American psychology professor Bernardo Carducci explains that while there is no evidence that a person is born shy, studies show that about 15-20% of babies are born with what Harvard University researcher Dr Jerome Kagan calls “inhibited temperament”.
Temperament, in this case, refers to certain biological characteristics present at birth that influence early behaviour. A baby with inhibited temperament, for example, would cry longer and louder when exposed to unpleasant noises, have a higher heart rate and kick her legs and feet more in reaction to external stimuli.
Belinda says that newborns differ in their ability to deal with stimuli, such as strange voices – some children are temperamentally more easily upset, and anxiety can be hereditary. There are also many other reasons why some children are shy. They can be affected by developmental delays or anxiety, or respond to external trauma, such as illness or abuse, by withdrawing.
Causes of shyness include :
- Inherited characteristics and modelling of parental traits
- Overprotective and hypersensitive parenting
- Social isolation through geography, parental influence or technology, such as email
- Embarrassment due to a disease or disorder, such as eczema or language delay
- Difficulty with developmental steps such as preschool, speech or puberty
- Fear of being thought “stupid” as a result of learning difficulties
- A response to environmental factors, such as moving house, losing a good friend, divorce or death in the family.
How you can help
Attitude before assistance is important. Your subconscious feelings can influence how well you respond to shyness. Belinda advises parents to be aware of their own feelings and history about fitting in socially. Clear your own internal clutter and take positive steps at home before calling in the experts.
Parenting and childcare expert Karen Sullivan offers a word of encouragement to concerned parents. There are many lovely things about “quiet” children – you should enjoy who they are and not focus on what you think they should be.
“We live in a society where outgoing, vibrant, extrovert children and people are celebrated – while (still) expecting our children to be quiet and polite when the occasion dictates,” she says. “Many parents want their kids to shine and stand out, and seem to consider shyness to be a character fault rather than being a reasonable trait – and something that many should admire.”
Shy or just wary?
Children are frequently called shy when they are simply wary – an appropriate response in a strange situation or when they feel uncomfortable. Shyness, says Anne, is only a problem when the child’s discomfort is having a “real, adverse effect” on her social and emotional development and learning.
10 tips for empowering your child
Medical homeopath and parenting expert Zanatoa Ings says that good communication is key.
- Communicate. Talk to your child and allow her to express her emotions freely. Feeling angry, hurt or embarrassed is not a crime.
- Choices and chores. For example, allowing her to decide which of two tops to wear will empower her, and being given household tasks to complete generates a sense of self-worth.
- You-and-me time. Give her your undivided attention when you can and find activities that you both enjoy. An attentive parent is priceless.
- Tell the truth. If you say you’ll fetch her at 3pm, do it. Consistency breeds trust – don’t send mixed messages.
- Ditch the labels. Call a child “shy” and she’ll live up to her label. Rather use phrases such as, “Anna takes some time to think of what she wants to say in new situations.”
- Out and about. Use an activity reward system. Going on a playdate might involve rewarding your child with a trip to the zoo, for example.
- Watch your mouth. Become the person you want your child to be – polite, kind and non-violent.
- Red flags. Sudden shyness may necessitate a medical exam or psychological screening. Follow your instincts.
- Face the music. Avoiding shyness triggers won’t help your child. Gradually introduce her to situations that challenge her.
- Practice makes perfect. Using finger puppets to mimic an imminent stressful event, like a birthday party, releases tension and provides space to prepare. Talk about how many people will be there and the activities your child will enjoy.
Beth Cooper Howell is a freelance journalist based in the Eastern Cape. She has a keen interest in holistic health and progressive parenting. She has written a book on breastfeeding, enjoys interviewing experts on cutting-edge parenting topics and believes that nothing beats being barefoot in the veld.