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In our outgoing culture, being shy can hold children back, but there’s much you can do to help a shy child.

Having a shy child who clams up in company and clings or  mumbles monosyllabic replies and retreats, can be disturbing. “My daughter would rather sit alone than make conversation with other children,” says Durban bookkeeper Janine* of her 11 year old. “At the school gala, she was on tenterhooks wondering when she was going to be called to swim, but was too shy to ask her teachers or her team-mates, who weren’t in her grade. She discovered afterwards she was just a reserve so she’d suffered for nothing.”

Janine understands her daughter’s shyness – she experienced it herself as a child. “My dad died when I was five and my mom moved around, so we often changed schools and homes. I remember sitting at school with everyone talking around me and not feeling comfortable. Being on my own was much preferred. I eventually got over it, but I don’t want that for my child.”

Unpacking the problem

Being shy is not a fault, it’s largely a personality trait – part of being an introvert, says Pretoria psychiatrist Dr Annemarie Potgieter. In some cases, it may be linked to a traumatic event or to life experiences, such as Janine’s. These children feel awkward in social situations, but once they become desensitised to them they usually relax, says child psychiatrist Dr Androula Ladikos, also from Pretoria.

It’s only when they don’t, and extreme embarrassment or fear prevents them from socialising, that they need professional help. They may have an anxiety disorder or social phobia (though this usually shows up only in adolescence) or Asperger’s syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder that makes social interaction difficult). The causes are complex and unclear, and some researchers suggest they may include genetic factors or a chemical imbalance in the brain, but there is not enough proof of this, says Ladikos: “It’s rather a temperament trait.”

Left untreated, acute shyness can restrict a child’s social development and education and impact their work and personal lives. It can even trigger co-morbid conditions, such as depression. “The low self-esteem that often goes with it may also predispose youngsters to substance abuse,” says Ladikos. A shy child needs to be professionally assessed and treated as early as possible. They generally respond well to cognitive behavioural therapy that progressively exposes them to social situations. “Medication is usually not as successful, and should only be given when the anxiety is overwhelming and therapy is not producing success on its own,” says Ladikos.

Read our article on why and how to encourage assertive behaviour.

How to help

Most children, however, require only guidance and patience, outgrowing their shyness as they mature and acquire better social skills. There’s much parents can do to help.

refrain

“Calling a child ‘shy’ encourages them to define themselves that way and resist change,” says Patricia Tau, an educational psychologist at Sunshine Hospital in Benoni and Dalpark 6 in Brakpan. Rather tell them and other people that they can be “a bit reserved at first” but will “soon warm up”, she advises.

nurture

Noticing a child’s needs from babyhood and responding to them teaches them to trust and feel secure, says Tau. Also, expose them early to the care of loving others, from relatives to baby-sitters, so they learn to trust them, says Ladikos.

empathise

Acknowledging how they feel without criticising builds confidence: “I know it can feel a bit scary starting a conversation with someone you don’t know, but that’s how I’ve made all my friends.” Pushing them builds resistance: “Go on, don’t be silly, Mr X won’t bite!” Many parents need to be taught to resist the urge to say such things, says Tau.

encourage

“Encouraging and supportive parenting, where you allow a child to do things on their own without constantly correcting them, builds self-esteem, as opposed to controlled parenting,” says Ladikos. Also, help them to identify talents and interests that make them feel special, and develop them. “It gives them things to share with others, making it easier to connect,” says Tau.

model

Children learn most from watching us and role-modelling, says Ladikos. Smiling readily and making eye contact with others, greeting them, paying compliments, and chatting casually with check-out staff and car guards can all help foster a relaxed attitude to social interactions and teach your child social skills. “Also model tolerance, respect and forgiveness, as it teaches them that they don’t need to be perfect,” says Tau.

facilitate

Create opportunities for your child to socialise safely, stretching them slowly – from having one child over to play a few times, to having them visit that child, Tau suggests. Involve them in sport and cultural activities that interest them, from soccer to choirs, and remind teachers to involve them in class activities.

role play

Ask what situations your child struggles with and act them out, from breaking into a play group to answering questions in class or coping with party nerves: “How would it be if you help serve the eats?” Also practise basic social skills, such as introductions, handshakes and making conversation. Suggest questions they can ask, says Ladikos.

respect

Don’t put the child on the spot: “Go on, sing for your aunt. You do it so well.” Ask them in advance and accept it if they decline, says Ladikos. Not all children are born performers.

applaud

Praise every attempt they make to socialise on their own, says Tau: “I know it wasn’t easy asking Siyabonga to play, but you’ll have fun. Well done.” Also teach them that failure is okay. It provides the feedback we need to grow.

step back

Whatever you do, don’t constantly speak for your child. It can be tempting when they’re shy, especially if you’re an extrovert. If someone addresses them, give them time to answer for themselves, Tau says, otherwise you are signalling that you don’t have confidence in them and could be keeping them from developing the very communication skills you want them to have.

don’t shy away

Most children outgrow shyness, but get professional help if your child:

  • avoids eye contact and interaction
  • is socially isolated
  • has learning or behavioural problems;
  • leaves others feeling uncomfortable in their presence and
  • has a family history of anxiety disorders, depression or substance abuse.

Read our article on helping your child to make friends.

* Names withheld/changed for privacy

Glynis Horning