How I Helped My Daughter Overcome Extreme Shyness

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.

Get tips for teaching kids to resolve conflicts peacefully >

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.

Get tips for nurturing self-esteem in kids >

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?
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Photo Credit:

1. tsuihin – TimoStudios

I’m now 20. And suffer from depression and social anxiety. School was a very hard experense for me. I had no friends and was teased often for being so quiet. I pretended like it was fine and didn’t bother me. But it left a very tramatic mark on my self esteem. I wish I had been diagnosed with social anxiety much sooner. It really does take a tole on so many parts of your life.

My daughter has every sign of smg and I’m a the end of my rope with trying to het her through school. She has struggled since kindergarten now its nearing graduation for her senior year and she has lost almost half of her credits due to the shyness ): I’ve tried online, homeschool and alternative to get her caight up but its impossible. I put her back into public school for what reason I don’t know because she won’t be able to graduate due to her credits. If only these children with this health issue could get their diploma like if it was a disability or something that would make their life a million times less stressful. Please someone help me with this situation we are dealing with. Thank you in advance. kimberlydockery@aol.com if you have any advice for me.

I am in 8th grade and I am thirteen years old. I have been looking up a lot of social anxiety problems , panic attacks and extreme shyness. I have yet to find out what is wrong with me. If there even is something wrong with me. It all started when I was really young I was always shy though. It has been getting worse I will do anything to get out of presenting in front of a class or a big group. My face will turn bright red while presenting even while just talking to small groups of people. I have told my mom that I am really terrified of going to school and any where out side of my house. She told me that it would go away but it just keeps getting worse what do you think I should do.

I am a thirteen year old girl and I have always been shy. I have been getting worst though and I am to scared to tell my mom. I have told her one before but she just said that it will go away but it hasn’t and just gotten worse. What do I do?

Hi. I’m in grade 7 and I’m a shy kid but I’m not sure if I have selective mutism. I have thought about it a lot and been reading a lot of different facts about it and most of them are what I feel at school infront of my teachers. I never know what to do when I get in talking situations so I just freeze and don’t say anything. It’s very hard for me when I don’t get something in math because I don’t have the courage to go and ask the teacher. I always get my best friend to ask for me. Teachers always try to get me to talk but it never works. Then there are some kids that always say to me why don’t you talk? I can start talking a little bit infront of my class near the end of the year because I got to know everyone and there not strangers anymore. The hardest part is presenting something infront of the class. When I have to read my speech my legs start shaking, I can bearly breathe or move. I don’t want to live my life at school without a voice.

My child misses out on so many opportunities because she is shy.

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One of my granddaughters was extremely shy. Although she was not treated for selective mutism, she hid behind her mother’s skirt most of the time. We called her a “Thinking Child” rather than “Shy,” since being shy seems to have a negative connotation. Readers may be interested in the article, “The Shy Child.” For a direct like, click below:
http://www.kellybear.com/TeacherArticles/TeacherTip31.html

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