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?
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?