There’s a difference between shy and introverted. (Photo by Jacqueline Veissid/Getty Images)
“She’s a little shy.” I remember that hearing that phrase often as a child — when I entered a new classroom, visited a relative I hadn’t seen in a while, or was asked to smile for a store clerk. My parents weren’t critical of my bouts of bashfulness, but I came to think of “shy” as a negative, and I worked to become more outgoing.
“Most people equate shyness with a hesitancy in social situations,” Christine Fonseca, author of the new book Raising the Shy Child: A Parent’s Guide to Social Anxiety, tells Yahoo Parenting. “In our culture, we expect kids to be able to collaborate effectively at a young age, have tons of friends, and be gregarious. When they aren’t, either related to temperament or behavior, we tend to think there’s something wrong.”
But according to Fonseca, shyness is not a problem that needs to be solved. “Shyness is simply that touch of inhibition with a new or unfamiliar activity — the pinch of nerves when you have a test, the feeling of butterflies on the first day of school,” she says. “This is all normal, and we can push past the discomfort and learn to not let that particular thing make us nervous in the future.” She shares her tips for helping shy kids feel comfortable and confident from a young age:
Plan Playdates Carefully. Even if your kid prefers to be alone, Fonseca notes that it’s important for all children to learn basic socialization skills. If you notice that your child is anxious during playdates, try changing one thing about the situation — the duration of the outing, the number of children there, or the activity — to find the mix that makes your child most comfortable. “Take baby steps to set your child up for success,” says Fonseca. The more early success, the more comfortable your child will feel as he or she gets older and encounters more complex social relationships.
Tune In to Your Child’s Moods. Kids who have shy tendencies don’t necessarily lack confidence — they may be introverts who prefer solitude or they may be more prone to get nervous about new situations than some of their peers. But to understand if there’s a bigger social anxiety disorder at play, Fonseca recommends paying attention to your child’s moods: “Does she act shy all the time, or only on some playdates? Are there differences in how she responds at home versus school, or during specific times of the day? All of this information can help you sort out behavior related to temperament versus behavior related to social anxiety.”
An older child may give you clues in the way he talks about his day, according to Fonseca. “Are there times when he is highly negative? What words does he use to describe the day or a certain experience? Listening closely can begin to tell you when a real confidence or esteem issue is starting to form.” Truly anxious kids may need expert help to learn to manage their responses, as well as to employ specific social and self-advocacy skills.
Cultivate Social Skills. If you notice that your child is hesitant and seems unsure of how to interact with others, show him what to do. “Teach the basics in the areas of listening, starting conversations, and the give-and-take of talking and sharing,” recommends Fonseca, noting that at different ages these skills will vary, of course. If you practice these behaviors at home where your child feels secure, he’ll be more likely to interact successfully out in the world.
Respect Introverts. Introverted children will often shy away from social engagement, especially when they are young. “This is related to their temperament and how they can become overwhelmed by the energy of the other children, often seeking a place to hide,” says Fonseca, adding that being introverted is different from being shy — it’s related to energy consumption and the need for replenishment. She recommends providing opportunities for your child to be alone to recharge during the day between social activities. “For a truly introverted child, it’s not about becoming extroverted,” says Fonseca. It’s about learning how to balance social demands with solitude.