Shy Child, Shy Adult?
Shyness is a common developmental behavior for toddlers and preschoolers that is often misunderstood. Learn to understand the reasons for shyness, recognize its symptoms, and what you can do to help.
How Parents Can Help
Clinical psychologist Renée Gilbert confirms that the prevalence of shyness among children is believed to increase with age—from roughly 20% of children in grade school to 50% of children by the time they reach adolescence. There are many ways that parents can help children to manage their shyness. If you’re concerned about your child, consider trying the following points:
- “Tell your child about times that you acted bashful,” recommends Malouff. “The beauty of using personal coping anecdotes to lead children is that there is not much for the children to resist. No one is telling them to do anything. The parents are just describing what they did that worked.”
- Explain to your child how he’ll benefit from acting outgoing. In their book Behavior Modification: What it is and How to Do it, co-authors Martin and Pear note that children who expect to benefit from a behavior, tend to engage in that behavior.
- Avoid labeling your child as “shy”. As with any label, children who are told that they are shy tend to fulfill the role, without making any effort to change.
- According to the book Motivation through Conscious Goal Setting. Applied & Preventive Psychology (E.A. Locke), a good deal of research supports the value of goal setting in improving performance of various types. Help your child to set realistic daily goals for more outgoing behavior, for example to say at least one word to one new person every day. Use a star-chart to help monitor progress.
- Be a model of outgoing behavior yourself, invite friends and family members over, visit neighbors, or speak to pleasant looking strangers in grocery store lines. Children are more likely to do what a parent does, than what a parent suggests! “Given that nearly 50% of adults in the United States are believed to be shy,” states Gilbert, “it stands to reason that nearly 50% of children have at least one shy parent and somewhere in the neighborhood of 25% of children have two shy parents. It’s hard to role model socially confident behavior when you’re struggling with shyness yourself. All you can do is your best”.
- Gradually expose your child to unfamiliar settings and people. The more practice shy children get interacting with unfamiliar people, the faster their shyness will decrease. Encouraging your child to foster one or two good friendships will also create “a secure base and place to practice social skills,” explains psychology professor Mary Ann Evans.
- According to Dr. Jens B. Asendorpf of Humboldt University in Berlin, social rejection and teasing can help produce shy behavior, so try to eliminate it. If necessary, physically remove your child from the presence of rejecting or teasing children.
A key factor in helping children to overcome shyness is to show empathy when they are afraid or feeling shy. Once they feel understood and accepted, you can begin teaching them to identify and talk about their emotions. Co-authors Malouff and Schutte, in their book Games to Enhance Social and Emotional Skills, suggest that expressing your own emotions in front of your children will help them to develop the skill themselves. Once shy children can express their emotions, they can start controlling their feelings of embarrassment and fear.
“Heredity, culture, and environment can each play a role in a child’s shyness,” confirms Davies. Considering the numerous factors involved, it’s never certain whether a child will outgrow shyness, or carry it over into adulthood. What is certain is the ability to learn to manage it. As a parent, the key to management is acceptance. While your shy youngster may not be destined to become a social butterfly, you can certainly help him to become more socially competent. Researchers call the match between a child’s temperamental needs and the parents’ demands “goodness of fit.” Aiming for the best “goodness of fit” may not be easy with a shy child, but it will certainly be worth the effort.
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