Meet George. He was a unique child.
You could even go as far as to say… “peculiar”. He was a student at our kindergarten.
George was extremely quiet – he barely said a word; even if his stomach hurt, not even if he had a cut.
The boy never mixed around with the other kids in class either. Activity time was alone time for him. And mealtime meant quiet time.
George always wore this blue jacket everywhere he went. Whether the weather was scorching hot or freezing cold, he wore the same blue jacket; zipped up to his chin.
The teachers couldn’t figure him out at all. No matter what they did to help him open up, he pulled back. Slowly, other kids began avoiding him too… even giving him the nickname “Shy Jacket Boy”.
What does ‘shy’ even mean?
Some children whom we label ‘shy’ are highly sensitive to their surroundings. Others are just so absorbed in whatever they’re doing that they lose interest in people. And then there’s a special group, who enjoys being in the company of others, but doesn’t give much input.
In all three, there’s no one that is worse off than another.
Labelling a child as ‘shy’ can make them think there’s something wrong with them. But there’s really nothing wrong with shy behavior. It’s just part of their temperament and that’s their unique way of interacting with the world.
“ It’s not about trying to change the child’s temperament. It’s about respecting and honoring temperament and variation, and helping children navigate the world with their own instruments." - Dr. K.R. Merikangas
Shyness in babies and children
During infancy, we begin seeing babies expressing their temperaments. For example, a baby might cling to her mother and cries when anyone else tries to carry her. Or a baby refusing to go to sleep without her parents next to her.
A little later, we see young children avoiding social interaction by hiding behind the legs of their parents, turning their heads when someone tries to talk to them, or even shutting their eyes.
In school, a child might avoid answering questions and sit aside when others are playing.
Supporting your shy child
You’re probably reading this article because you’re looking to support your child so they feel more comfortable in social situations.
Understandably, it can be worrying that they feel left out or act in a way that others don’t usually do. So here are some tips that you can use for yourself, that our teachers use for children like George.
Tips for toddlers
One of the cardinal rules for handling shy children is this: Avoid shaming their behavior. Never say things like “Stop being so shy”, “Why are you so quiet” or “Just speak up”.
What they need is to acknowledge what he/she feels. Ask them questions to identify the emotions they are going through. An approach like this helps them to feel good about themselves instead of feeling insecure because they have a “problem”.
For example, your kid might be playing in the park and has a positive encounter with another child. If he/she is standing a distance away, chances are they’re going to be constantly looking to you for reassurance.
You could use eye contact, gestures or mouth certain actions so as to help them through. And after that, praise them for the specific behavior “Jenny, I really liked the way you said hello to that girl. Did you see her smile after you greeted her?”
We all know that children learn by watching. And parents being one of the biggest role models, have a great impact on them.
This means being friendly to strangers, offering to help others along the way and having a relaxed attitude overall. With the non-verbal cues, you’ll begin seeing your child act likewise.
It’s like a new skill for them. They need time to get used to it, they need the practice to get better at it before they begin to feel more confident about themselves. Sometimes they might slip up. Reassure them that it’s ok.
If your child is going into a new environment and you can see him/her beginning to act up. Be there for them and acknowledge ‘I can see you feel a bit scared because you don’t know who’s at the party. Let’s look together before we walk in’
Tips for school-age children
Getting them involved in communities or classes would be a good idea.
Children who engage very little in social interaction have less experience in dealing with different types of people. They get stressed out more easily because their social maturity is less developed than peers their age.
One of the fundamentals of social skills is shaking hands, looking at someone in the eye when they are talking, greeting an elder or acknowledging someone’s presence. But it might be scary to suddenly throw your child into such an awkward and stressful situation.
So what you could do is role-play this with two teddy bears. Pretend this was a real interaction and guide them with questions like “What should he say?” or “What should she do?” This role-play helps diffuse the stress when the real situation arises.
Your house or your friend’s house could be a good opportunity to “train” your child. It’s a safe environment with you around and it’s also uncomfortable enough for them to deploy their newly learnt skills.
Eventually, decrease the time you’re within sight and if you feel your child is confident enough, you could even leave and come back to pick them up. The gradual transition will help him/her gain ore familiarity with being alone in a foreign place without you.
Even if you mean well, never compare your shy child to a more confident sibling or child. Sometimes you could want to use that person as an example for them to reference. But to children, it seems like they are not good enough.
Instead, coach your child before a social gathering. “People are going to want to talk to you today. Remember to look at Auntie Rachel when she’s talking. If you don’t, she might think you’re not listening to her.’ A simple reminder can go a long way.
So when is shyness a cause for concern?
Most children grow out of their shyness when they begin primary school, where parents begin to play a smaller role in their educational development.
It is very normal for children to be wary of adults, especially men, but less common to be wary of other children.
We advise consulting a specialist if it is persistent (lasting a few years), rather than temporary or occasional (depending on the crowd and situation). Or if he/she displays symptoms of anxiety disorder.
Turn shyness into confidence
Using these same techniques, we eventually managed to get him to remove his jacket for the first time. And now he’s comfortable walking around without it!
And this one you wouldn’t believe…
When George’s batch graduated, he was the emcee for the performance! Can you believe that? Our teachers were so proud they couldn’t stop crying.
We felt so proud of George and the other students for how far they have come in their journey.It is times like these that we feel like all we do is worth it. And we want to help more children like George.
If you have a child or you know someone who might benefit from this transformation, we’d love to talk to you and show you how we can help!