By: Steve Palmer
When our youngest daughter reached speaking age, we began to notice a concerning pattern. She had always been a shy child during her toddler years, but as she continued to develop, we started to realize that her tendency to hold back in interactions with others was becoming more pronounced. Specifically, she would not speak to anyone outside the immediate family. She never said anything. Not a word. Yet, while at home (where she was comfortable), she would gab away. Read more >
As the youngest of six, our daughter grew up around words, and she became a supremely verbal little girl – but only in the presence of family. In public, she was willing to smile, nod, or gesture, but never uttered a word. Even with her grandparents, whom she loved and with whom she would happily spend the night, she didn’t say a solitary thing. She took to whispering in her siblings’ ears for communication in public places, and when she was enrolled in preschool at the local park, she went through several hours of class without joining in the songs or any activities that called for speaking up.
We tried all sorts of things to encourage her to give it a try – rewards, games, verbal encouragement – but nothing seemed to help. When asked why she wouldn’t speak, she just said she felt “funny” or “embarrassed”.
With the help of a good therapist and an amazingly supportive school and teacher during her kindergarten year, we unraveled the mystery. Our little girl had Selective Mutism, an anxiety-based inability to talk in certain situations.It took time, patience, persistence, and a real understanding of what was going on inside her, to help her find her way into a new confidence.
Selective Mutism may be an extreme form of shyness, but it’s a good illustration of the general issues around this topic that we deal with as parents – and the shape of how I think we should try to work with it in our kids.
Shy kids tend to feel uncomfortable in one or more situations. Typically, these situations involve some level of social interaction, but may not include all aspects of social life. Some kids are shy at school or when amongst peers, but fine at home or when with their family. Others are comfortable with peers and schoolmates, but feel shy around people they haven’t met before. Whatever their situation, here are a few tips that can help us help them:
Try to really learn about and understand what is going on inside your child. Anxiety can be difficult to understand if it has not been a big part of your experience. It can be hard to see why situations that don’t trigger your own fears may make your child hesitate or avoid them altogether. Some research about the experience of anxiety (*resources are suggested below) and gentle conversation with your child might help you empathize with your child’s experience.
Plan your help strategies based on your child’s real needs. If you find out that your child’s concern is what others may be thinking of him (a common cause of shyness in all of us!), then you can help him consider ways to check his perceptions against reality. If you find that your child doesn’t feel as if he knows what to do when in a new situation, you can help him learn new behaviors that might be helpful. If he’s having problems with a particular child at school you can help him problem solve.
Consider yourself a coach. Overcoming shyness requires building a felt confidence in whatever area of experience is creating the difficulty. This is true for all of us. Anger, shaming, or impatience will not likely be effective strategies in coaching kids in new ways of thinking, perceiving, or behavior. Instead, try naming specific behaviors that build a little at a time toward the desired goals, and give plenty of encouragement, celebrating victories as they come.
For instance, our daughter’s therapist suggested we use “brave bucks” – paper money that we added to a pile each time our little one made an attempt to communicate, however small. Little sounds, mumbling, a willingness to use small words, or even laughing out loud in others’ presence earned her a buck or two, which could be added up and traded in for small treats. This helped her stay on track with the little things that added up to her first conversations.
Be gentle, patient, supportive and persistent. Change takes time. Kids don’t learn to read in a day or a week, and learning confidence and comfort from new ways of thinking and new skills in relating are complex processes, from a psychological point of view, as well. A particular approach to therapy called Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy can be a really useful way to go when working with these kids – or even our own problems with anxiety! See The Academy of Cognitive Therapy’s website for more information on this approach.
Shyness is often something we’re born with a tendency toward, but not necessarily something our kids need to live with forever. Remember that many of our natural tendencies toward shyness can be worked with, and beginning to support our kids in learning new confidence works best when we begin early.
Here are some great resources for more information, ideas, and support:
- Walsh, B. (February 6, 2012). The power of shyness. Time Magazine. This is an interesting article that discusses the value inherent in the personality types that tend toward shyness.
Tell Us: Do you have a shy kid? How do you help your shy kid build confidence?