Shy children are cautious and slow to warm up to new situations and people, To people who don't know them, they may appear standoffish and cool. Research suggests that 10 to 15 per cent of children are born with a tendency to be shy. Shy children seem to have different physiological reactions to stress. Their nervous systems are more sensitive, and they are more easily startled than other children. A shy child, when exposed to new situations, will likely produce more stress hormones and have a higher heart rate for a longer period of time.
Just because a child tends to be shy doesn't mean that he or she is destined to be lonely or unhappy. But, as with a personality trait like recklessness when taken to extremes, shyness can be a serious problem if it becomes an obstacle to the child's social and emotional development. As a parent, you shouldn't expect a shy child to suddenly become a social butterfly and seek out the spotlight. But you don't want your child to be a recluse either.
It's important to respect your child's temperament and to use a parenting style that helps her develop confidence and social skills. Not all parenting styles are helpful. A firm insistence that the child be more adventurous may cause her to withdraw even further into a shell. Pushing a child into an intimidating social situation with the instructions "Don't be shy" won't help her. She will simply become more anxious when what she needs is to become less anxious in order to gain confidence.
But too much protection is not a solution either. If you protect your child from every new situation that might cause her to become anxious, she'll have no opportunity to show initiative or to take risks and develop confidence in her own abilities. She may also sense your lack of confidence in her, which will further weaken her self-esteem.
What works best is a middle path that respects your child's sensitivity but encourages her to meet challenges, take risks, and develop social skills at her own pace. Shy children generally need time to warm up to new experiences and people. Once they feel comfortable with a person or situation and know what's expected, they can surprise you with their warmth.
Don't label your child by saying "She's shy" in front of other people, or by acting embarrassed when she is tentative or holds back in social situations. Let grandparents, relatives, or friends know in private that she simply needs time to warm up to people. Tell them in private about her likes and interests, that she reads to her little brother or that she's taking gymnastics, so that they can ask her something specific to help break the ice.
A perceptive, sensitive teacher can also bring out the best in a timid child and help him to flourish. But if the teacher is overbearing or indifferent, your shy child may not get recognized. She may be ignored or intimidated and do poorly in her schoolwork. It's important for you to be your child's advocate and to intervene, if necessary, in problem situations. If the school environment doesn't let a kid feel secure and comfortable, discuss the situation with the classroom teacher first and then the principal, if necessary.
Teachers, parents, aunts, uncles, and supportive friends can help turn a child's shyness around. They can model appropriate behaviour at social functions, giving the shy child practice in socializing, and, most importantly, encourage and reward all the child's attempts to interact with people and become a more social person.
Before you visit family or friends, prepare your ten-year-old for the visit by telling him casually what to expect. Talk about who will be there and what activities will be going on, and repeat some nice things that some of the other visitors have said about him so that he realizes they like him and find him interesting. Say, "Uncle John will want to hear more about your woodworking class. He was impressed last time you saw him when you told him about the shelf you made." Afterward, talk with him about what went on, focusing on events that were interesting and fun.
Making Friends: The Best Antidote
Friendships are critical to the social and emotional development of any child, but shyness may sometimes make it more difficult for a friendship to develop. Shyness is a potentially serious problem if a child is unable to make or keep friends. It's important to address the problem when your child is young by helping him to make friends, and then encouraging and supporting the development of those friendships. Shy children may need more contact with their parents; when you take your child to an event, don't just drop her off. Stay awhile and talk to help your child warm up a bit to the others.
The shy six-year-old may be hesitant and reluctant to meet other kids in the neighbourhood. Encourage him to befriend another quiet child who doesn't threaten your son in any way. As they become comfortable with each other, encourage the two of them to visit and get to know other kids in the neighbourhood, which should be easier together than on their own.
Take an active role in arranging activities that your child will enjoy, but be selective. Make your home a secure and inviting place for your child to play with friends. Keep games, puzzles, and refreshments on hand. Get the child involved in nonthreatening activities like swimming, painting, music, summer day camp, or a team sport in which he has some ability, If the child enjoys the activity, then social interaction may be a natural byproduct.
Some shy children are just slow to warm up to people, but they may be very observant and sensitive to nuances. They may develop friendships with fewer children, but these friendships may be closer. Many shy children are more comfortable one on one or in small groups, rather than in a large crowd. Show your child that you value and respect his friends. Treat them with good humour, and make them feel like members of your family. Good friends, who like and are comfortable with each other, help one another to grow and develop.
Excerpted from Raising great Kids: Ages 6 to 12 by Christine Langlois. Copyright 1999 by Telemedia Communications Inc. Excerpted, with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.