Wed, 07 May 2003

How to overcome shyness in children

Donya Betancourt, Pediatrician,

What makes a child shy? Shyness involves anxiety and behavioral inhibition in social situations. Although all children may be bashful, some children experience shyness to a debilitating degree.

Young shy children often show an eagerness to observe others, but are reluctant to speak or join in on conversations. They may refuse to enter a new setting, such as a classroom, without being accompanied by a parent or caretaker and may refuse to participate in sports or activities.

The fact is, shy children want to interact with the unfamiliar and others, but don't because of fear. The possible causes of shyness are genetic, and the end result involves how the child is being treated by parents, siblings and peers.

A question arises as to whether childhood shyness leads to mental health problems later in life. Due to the fact that shy children tend to avoid activities such as sports, drama and debate, which in turn causes them to be perceived as unfriendly and untalented, shy children tend to feel lonely and to develop fewer friendships.

This lack of social skill can lead to low self-esteem. Shy children tend to become anxious teens, and shy adults tend to have small social networks and to feel less satisfied than others with comparable social support. Parents can help their child to overcome fear.

There are many ways for parents to help children overcome their shyness. First of all, observe your child, talk to school teachers and be a role model. Tell your child that it is normal to be bashful. Children will tend to feel better about their shyness when parents discuss their own shyness and how they overcame it.

It is very important to prevent labeling of the children as "shy" when talking with others, as parents sometimes say in front of a child that he or she is shy. Big mistake! Children who are told that they are shy tend to start thinking of themselves as shy and then fulfill the role. Wise parents never hang a negative label on their children. Because shy behavior is so obvious in children, other children and adults often comment on it, saying something like, "Oh, she's shy."

Try disagreeing in a good-natured way and offering a non- labeling alternative explanation, such as that your child sometimes takes a while to warm up. As for being a role model, children learn a great deal through observing the behaviors of parents and others around them.

Parents who never invite anyone over to the house, never take phone calls and never speak to strangers may tend to have shy or nonsocial children. Try inviting friends and family members over, and visit neighbors. Most importantly, talk with children the same age as your child, or join in their games. If your child won't speak or join in, don't worry, you're setting an example that shows that being outgoing is something fun and positive.

You're also showing your child how to interact with others. If your child becomes agitated at your behavior (because of embarrassment), show empathy and end the interaction in a nonabrasive way. Continue this type of interaction, gradually increasing the length of time of the interactions over a course of days or weeks.

Be careful not to push a shy child too hard. You could just create more resistance. Go for gradual improvement, realizing that the child will show improvement on some days and not on others. Whenever possible, prompt shy children to speak, join in or interact with others, then ask your child what he or she thinks about something relating to the activity.

Remember that a shy child who makes even one friend in a new setting has made great progress and will eventually interact more with other children. Parents and teachers can help facilitate the process of making friends by asking two children to play together, and then talking with both of them about their common interests or activities.

Choose a willing and able child as a friend, not a child who already has a tight relationship with someone else.

Remember that understanding, unconditional love and the support of other adults can go a long way to overcome a child's shyness.