MJ’s mother is worried.
“She’s so shy. Whenever we get together with people, I mean even one or two people, she hangs behind me. I don’t know how to encourage her.”
MJ is four years old. When I first meet her, I see what her mother means. MJ stands behind her mom. She sneaks a peak at me. She retreats. When she finally does come forward, she holds tight to her mom’s hand. I ask her to tell me her whole name. “MaryJane,” she whispers. I tell her that her mom and I are going to talk a bit and that it’s okay if she decides she’d like to see what’s in the toy corner. Mom and I talk. Sure enough, in about 10 minutes, MJ is exploring the books and toys.
MJ is perfectly normal. What looks to her mom like shyness is a developmental stage. Many preschoolers are reticent when confronted with new people, new situations, or new demands. They hang back a bit and observe what is going on rather than jump right in. Once MJ had time to survey the room and to decide that I was probably a benign grownup, she felt confident enough to explore new territory. As kids like MJ get more accustomed to meeting new people and mastering new challenges, their “shyness” often naturally fades away.
Other children are “shy” by temperament. Ask any mother of two or more children. Children are different from the time they start moving in the womb. Some are active and bouncy. Others quietly shift from one position to another. Once they pop out into the world, they are still very much themselves with temperaments to match the activity their mothers felt while they were getting ready to be born.
Quieter infants often become the children who are more comfortable being with one or two friends instead of a large group, who are uncomfortable with unexpected social demands, and who are sensitive to how others are behaving. Often they are more easily upset by transitions and change and take longer to settle down. This shy temperament is as much a part of who a child is as eye color and handedness.
Not surprisingly, temperamentally shy children often have at least one shy parent. The shy child may have inherited his temperament from his shy and sensitive parent or he may have learned to approach new situations with some caution because that’s what he’s observed his parent doing. Probably, as with most things, it’s a combination of both nature and nurture.
Dos and Don’ts for Helping Normally Shy Children Learn to Manage the Social World
- Don’t consider shyness a character flaw. It’s a difference, not a defect. Shy people are often sensitive observers who provide balance, thoughtfulness, and care to the social mix.
- Don’t try to cajole, scold, or pep-talk the child out of his shyness. This will only frustrate you and embarrass the child. Some kids even come to believe that their parents don’t like them!
- Don’t insist that your child show off new skills. Some children are natural performers. Not the shy child. The shy child prefers to be in the audience or stay backstage. Accept that not everyone needs to be in the spotlight.