Shyness is a personality trait that can be crippling in extremes. While many people are perfectly happy being introverted (and introverted children are often less likely to engage in social misbehavior), shyness when it is full blown can prevent people from socializing, from progressing in careers, from doing well in relationships and more.
Shyness is something that should be addressed and improved, and if you have a child who struggles with shyness then you should take the opportunity early on while they are still young and while they are still in their more formative years. Not only will addressing shyness in childhood help to ensure that they have a better school experience that leads to more confidence in later life, but it will also prevent them from getting deeper into a cycle of behaviors that is much harder to break.
Scientists and psychologists disagree about where shyness comes from, but if you take the cognitive behavioral therapy view then you will put it down to a combination of negative thoughts and reinforcing events and experiences. In other words then the contents of the thoughts of a shy person tend to include things like ‘if I say something wrong then people won’t like me’ or ‘what if I stutter?’, and this is then confirmed by events where they do indeed stutter or receive criticism and teasing from their contemporaries (ironically this is probably caused by the anxiety that came from those thoughts). Eventually the child then stops interacting with other children, and thus they never ‘test’ their theory that they can’t socialize again. Every time they opt to stay in rather than go out, or opt to stay quiet rather than speak up, they are supporting their own theory that they are shy and that they aren’t very good at socializing.
How to Help a Child With Shyness
So if your child has this kind of crippling shyness at a young age, what can you do to address it and improve their social skills? There are a few things that you can do, and by understanding the above points you can start to unravel their self-perpetuating negative beliefs early on. Here are some suggestions.
Don’t Label Them as Shy
Remember that part of the problem your child has with socializing comes from the fact that they believe they are too shy to interact. Thus by labeling your children as shy you are simply reinforcing their self-belief. At the same time this will mean that they are able to retreat into themselves and don’t feel any pressure to try and improve themselves. Here shyness becomes almost an excuse for them to stay quiet and not to try and interact.
Force Them to Interact
It might sound cruel to force a child to interact with people when they don’t want to, but if you let them stay completely introverted and never go out then you will only make matter worse for them. What you need to do then is to repeatedly put them in positions where they are forced to speak to others and mingle in larger groups. So for instance you might send them to a party, or you might make them get a part time job, or you might ask them to sing in front of the family when they visit. This way they are testing their own hypothesis that they will be laughed at and they will hopefully come to see that they can socialize without dire consequences and at the very least they will become somewhat desensitized to the fear and start to view it as less terrifying when they do have to interact.
You need to be careful when doing this however to make sure that the situation you are getting them to interact in is one that will be good for them and have a good outcome. Remember you’re trying to prove them wrong not reinforce their shyness – so if you make them perform in a situation where they are going to be ridiculed by others then you will have done more harm than good. So don’t make them go to school parties with the ‘cool kids’ and don’t make them sign up for the school concert. Instead make them go to parties where you know the other children are nice and accepting, and get them to perform in front of your family because you know they are going to be supportive. Be sensitive to other factors – are your children socially aware? Are they in the ‘cool’ group? This way you can make sure to do more good than harm.
Encourage to Talk
You can also encourage your children to speak up when you are with them, and getting them to interact with people like this means you will be there to help guide them and that the person they are speaking to will be more likely to be kind and careful with them. The perfect opportunity is to get the child to speak for you in a shop – if they want to buy some sweets then get them to take the money to the counter and speak to the shop assistant. It’s all practice and it will all raise their confidence.
You should recognize that if your child is very shy then they probably aren’t very confident in social situations or they aren’t very confident in themselves. You can improve their shyness then by generally raising their self-esteem. Do this with general praise, and at the same time praise them for their charisma and their speaking voice when they do speak up in public. The more you praise and encourage them, the more they will be able to do so.
Sending your child to clubs and classes is a great way to get them to interact with other children. However it’s even better if those clubs also revolve around socializing and around speaking to others and letting go of inhibitions. Acting for instance is ideal because it forces your child to stand in front of a group and perform. Likewise something like karate can be great for encouraging them to let go of inhibition, as can dance or singing. The teacher will be used to dealing with shy children and should be sensitive to your child’s specific needs.
A lot of our traits come from our parents and this is particularly true of things like shyness. Shyness is an anxiety disorder and if your children are shy then it’s because they are over thinking the situation and generally panicking. If you are anxious and wound tightly about a lot of things then this will affect how your children act. Instead then, make sure to be as relaxed and as calm as you can be and to set a good example by pointing out how things don’t matter. At the same time try to demonstrate a general lack of inhibition (to a degree) around them and others so that they see that it’s perfectly okay to make a fool out of yourself from time to time. If you can let go a bit, so will they generally.
While you need to put your child in difficult situations that doesn’t mean that you can’t be sympathetic and that you have to be harsh. Remember your child is likely to be very sensitive and you don’t want to upset them more by shouting at them for something they are struggling with – it will only cause them to turn inwards more. Instead then tell them about how you have been shy in the past, and about how it is normal, but also about how it is important to get over the problem and how you intend to help them do it. If your child is a little older and is intelligent then you can explain to them how you can control the contents of your thoughts, and how you sometimes need to force yourself to do something in order to improve.
If the shyness is a big problem in your child’s life and you are worried then using therapy might be a good idea. The aforementioned cognitive behavioral therapy is a great example of the kind of treatment that can be ideal for treating shyness. Here the therapist will recognize that thoughts and behaviors are the cause for shyness and they will teach your child how to control their thoughts and how to force themselves to do things that are good for them. Left to develop seriously, shyness can turn into agoraphobia, panic attacks and other problems – so it’s important to address it early.