Dear Dr Justin,
I am writing to ask how to help my seven-year-old daughter who is very shy. Her body tightens at school and when they perform songs and dance in front of parents, she is obviously not comfortable.
At home with family and friends she is very happy – running around and dancing, singing and talking. When I’m around she can also play with new kids. I think that kind of shyness is in my blood as I had the same experience, but I would really like to help her improve so that she can enjoy her life more. Being shy is OK, but everyone can see it and a few people commented on it. That is why it is worrying.
I told her to try and not show her shyness, but there must be ways to help her. She started dance classes recently which she enjoys.
I would appreciate your time and advice on this matter.
Dr Justin responds:
As a society we tend to respond to children who are shy or introverted particularly poorly. We prize the extrovert with the confidence to step up and be noticed. The gregarious girl or brave boy don’t have anything ‘wrong’ with them, but with shyness, we shudder. How do we ‘help’ the child who is shy?
First, let’s get clear on some definitions. There’s a difference between a child who is shy and a child who is introverted. Shyness is the fear of negative judgement. Shyness has a level of anxiety attached to it. Someone who is very shy is typically uncomfortable in the presence of others. They will avoid contact with others. An introvert is someone who prefers quiet, non-stimulating environments. Shyness involves social anxiety, which is not necessarily present in introversion.
In some contexts it appears that your daughter fits the definition of shyness much better than the definition of introversion. She becomes anxious – possibly about negative judgement – when she is asked to perform at school. That is the essence of shyness. Your daughter is apprehensive about how people will respond to her. But having your presence (at home, for example) seems to help her overcome that shyness.
Having a shy child prompts all kinds of anxiety in us, as parents. We worry that our child will be overlooked at school by teachers. We fear that friendships will falter, or fail to even start. We worry about loneliness, lack of party invitations and playdates, or invisibility. And then our own insecurities start to play on us. Have we done something to stifle our child’s confidence? Do we simply not understand? Or is it something we have passed along inadvertently – which is something you have alluded to in your letter.
What is the best thing to do?
No matter how hard you try, you will not change your daughter into the life of the party. In fact, you probably won’t even change her into an outgoing child who looks for opportunities to meet new people and try new things. By accepting your daughter for who she is, you will be better able to see her strengths and encourage her to use them in her own unique way.
Note, this also means that you will not shame your daughter into behaving in a way that is contrary to her character. Telling her that “if you keep that up, you’ll never have any friends” will leave her feeling unworthy and not good enough. Similarly, comparisons (“why can’t you be more like Sabrina from school?”) will only deflate feelings of self-worth.
2. Recognise Strengths
Shyness may be one attribute that your child displays sometimes in some contexts. But even the most child possesses a range of strengths and attributes that round him or her out, and that allow for contribution and personality. Perhaps your daughter is sensitive to other’s needs, or a deep-thinker. Maybe she is an exceptional student with a love of learning? Spot your child’s other strengths. Emphasise them. Give her opportunities to develop them. Celebrate the whole child that she is.
3. Avoid Labels
When you, a teacher, or family members and friends comment that your daughter is shy, it can be reinforcing. Because shyness is typically seen as a ‘problem’, your daughter may come to feel that there is something wrong with her. When teacher’s comment, “she needs to speak up more in class”, or when friends suggest, “wow, she sure struggles to mingle with the other kids”, don’t reply with, “oh, she’s just shy.”
Instead, acknowledge that “sometimes we all have days where we prefer to be alone.” If she calls herself shy, remind her, “we all take a different amount of time to feel comfortable around new people … and that’s OK.”
4. Validate her Experience
While you might not always agree with the way she acts, let your daughter know it’s OK to feel a bit nervous. Rather than being a critic, be a support. When she knows that you are a safe person, she will feel more confident. When she fears your judgment, her anxiety will increase.
5. Offer Opportunities to Stretch
This may seem counter to much of the advice I’ve shared, but it is something to consider. Your daughter still needs growth opportunities. Enrolling her in dance class (as you have) is a great opportunity for her to leave her comfort zone a little and try something new. The opportunities shouldn’t leave her quaking in her boots. You should remain close by as a support when you can. But inviting her to extend herself can limit the impact that her otherwise shy behaviour might otherwise promote.
I’d also refer you to the TED talk by Susan Cain about shyness. Google around this area and you’ll find tremendous resources to help you.
It would be wonderful if we could protect our children from all pain, drama, and torment. But we cannot. Nor should we try. There are going to be times when your daughter’s shyness drives you mad. Be patient. As she grows and matures – and with love and support – she will likely grow into a confident and capable young woman. She may never be as outgoing as others. But she will be entirely able to succeed in the activities and relationships she pursues.
How do you deal with your child's shy temperament?