Dealing With The Shy Child

By Chelle Cordero

June 6, 2012 5 min read

You know she knows the answer, but when the teacher asks for volunteers, she just won't raise her hand. There are children in every classroom who allow life's opportunities to pass them by because they don't feel comfortable "in the spotlight." Parents will often react with disbelief when they are told that the child who doesn't know how to stay quiet at home doesn't utter a word in class or other social settings.

John Malouff, Ph.D. -- senior lecturer in psychology, author of "Helping Young Children Overcome Shyness" and father to Elizabeth -- had this to say: "Shyness involves anxiety and behavioral inhibition in social situations. It occurs most frequently in situations that are novel or suggest evaluation of the person or situations where the person is conspicuous or others are intrusive. Although all children may experience shyness sometimes, some children experience shyness to a debilitating degree."

Malouf, along with his wife, Nicola Schutte, Ph.D., helped their own then-4-year-old daughter Elizabeth when her fears about new people and situations became overwhelming when she started school. "When my daughter entered pre-kindergarten, I expected her to have fun and learn. She talked and talked at home, loved books and said she was eager to start school. I didn't expect her to refuse to speak to anyone there, but that's what she did for the entire fall."

Shyness is considered more of a feeling where the individual feels uncomfortable than a personality disorder. Some studies have suggested that there might be a "shy gene", but if the comfort level is raised, the difficulty experienced will not become a permanent and disabling habit. The following are recommended strategies that Malouf and his wife used to help their daughter:

--Tell the children about times when you acted bashful.

--Explain to the children how they will benefit from acting outgoing.

--Show empathy when the children feel afraid to interact.

--Prevent labeling of the children as "shy."

--Set goals for more outgoing behavior and measure progress.

--Set a model of outgoing behavior.

--Expose the children to unfamiliar settings and people slowly.

--Prompt the children to interact with others.

--Reward the children for outgoing behavior.

--Praise others' outgoing behavior in the presence of the children.

--Help the children practice interacting with others.

--Pair each shy child with another child in each important setting.

--Read books with the children about individuals who overcome shyness.

--Eliminate teasing of the children.

--Teach the children to identify and verbally express their emotions.

--Coordinate your efforts with those of other relevant adults.

--Read up on shyness and learn additional strategies for parents and teachers.

--Consult a guidance counselor or psychologist.

Never ridicule or discount the child's fears of unfamiliar surroundings and people; instead, sharing your own or others' experiences and how (your) fears were coped with can certainly help. Gradually introduce the new setting and people and if possible, be there to lend your support while you encourage the child's interaction with others; don't force them to speak on their own, but include them in your conversations with others so they feel safe. Avoid labeling your child as shy or as anything else with negative connotations. Reward your child for positive improvements, but avoid singling him or her out or teasing him.

So-called shy children may fear ridicule, criticism, failure, or even bullying. If your child is bullied, Malouf says, you will have the "most success with school bullies by being persistently assertive with the teacher and school. It is possible to train children to deal with bullies, but it is usually easier to press the school to end the bullying. I asked a teacher once to end the bullying of my daughter by a physically abusive boy, and the teacher ended the bullying immediately and forever. Sometimes it is necessary to change schools. If the bullying starts again in the new school, then it is time for parents to train the child to act differently to prevent or end bullying (some children make themselves targets)."

Children can learn behaviors to help them feel confident and interact more easily if you provide them with outgoing examples and patience.

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