He’s So Shy …

When my 19-year-old son was little, he was a shy guy. So shy, in fact, that when we had company he would often hide under his bed until he felt comfortable about coming out and joining the party.

Unfortunately, this was usually about 10 minutes before everyone left. But we were always accepting of the fact that this little dude needed to warm up to the idea first so we never forced him to come out until he was ready.

One of his grandfathers understood his temperment really well and made it a point to never approach him directly the minute he arrived. He always let him make the first move. As soon as he did, Papa would be there with a warm smile and a silly joke. His approach worked great and he was one of the few who my son always made a bee-line for, whenever he stopped by.

But not everyone understands the nature of shyness like my father did and some parents see it as a flaw in their child. They find themselves apologizing for him or getting embarrassed when he doesn’t behave in that friendly, outgoing manner that our society seems to favor. Then they begin to worry and wonder, “Is something wrong with him?” “Why is he so anti-social?” “Will he ever have any friends?” “What are we doing wrong?”

The truth is there is absolutely nothing wrong with being shy. It is simply a personality trait and one with many bonuses attached to it. The quiet child is often a very skilled observer and one who thinks deeply. He may take a little time to size someone up but once he decides that person is worthy of his time and attention, he really connects. And when these children grow up they are often very good listeners and as a result have that treasured ability to make others feel at ease around them.

Contrary to what you might think, there are a lot of people out there who consider themselves shy. In fact, up to 40% of us identify ourselves that way. And despite your concern that your child’s shyness may point to a deeper problem, at least one study found that most shy children do not develop anxiety disorders and that most adolescents who do develop an anxiety disorder were not particularly shy when they were younger.

Sometimes shyness can cause problems for children when it is extreme. If, for example, a child refuses to go to school or talk to teachers or is really unable to make any friends it might be something that needs to be worked out with a professional. This does occasionally happen but it’s relatively rare.

If you are still concerned though, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does she seem to be fine in every other way?
  • Is she polite towards people and does she make eye contact once she warms up?
  • Is she pleasant to be around?
  • Is she able to make a few friends? Even one or two?
  • Does she do okay in new situations or with new people once she has had time to get used to them?

If you answered mostly yes then you really needn’t worry. But there are some things that you can do to make things easier for your child:

  • First and foremost, get it into your head that there is nothing wrong with him. Give him the space to be who he is without labeling him or apologizing for him. Respect his temperment but at the same time, don’t use it as an excuse to enable rude or inappropriate behavior.
  • Don’t describe him as “shy.” Instead, use words like reserved, quiet or focused. He will hear these as more neutral descriptions of his personality.
  • Never criticize or tease him for being quiet or slow to warm. This approach will actually backfire on you and can also damage his self-esteem, which I know you don’t want to do!
  • Don’t push him to socialize with people until he’s had a chance to get comfortable. Depending on his age you can tell him that making eye contact and offering a polite “Hi,” is enough when he has to greet a visitor, neighbor or friend. If he’s really little (under 3) give him a wide berth and don’t force an interaction with adults or other children.
  • Model social behaviors yourself. Let him see you interact with others in a friendly way and talk about ways to greet people. You can also work on these skills with dolls, stuffed animals or action figures. This is a really good, non-threatening way for him (and all children) to practice social behaviors and skills.
  • Don’t overwhelm him with friends. Limit the number of kids invited over to one or two.
  • Take the time to prepare him for social events that are coming up like a birthday party or going to school. Let him know what will be happening and who he might be seeing.
  • Be patient. Most children will become less shy as they get older and gain more experience and confidence.

BTW: My “shy guy” is no longer shy but he continues to be extremely observant and sensitive to how others feel. He’s on the quiet side but has a great sense of humor and many friends. And when it came time to choose a college the little guy who used to hide under his bed opted for a huge university with 40,000 kids, 18 car hours away from home. I’m still a little surprised that he would be comfortable in a situation where there are 1100 kids in his dorm alone! Just goes to show you, I guess…

Last but not least — if you’re looking for a couple of books to read with your timid one, try these:

Orlando’s Little While Friends

The Blushful Hippopotamus

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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