A Mother of a Young Child Asks:
My daughter is very shy. When she is with me I let people know that she is shy and they seem to understand. But when I can’t be close by, I worry that she will be uncomfortable socializing with the other children. How can I help her climb out of her shell?
A Psychologist Replies:
We often follow our child’s lead when it comes to pulling away or moving in. When a child is outgoing or a chatterbox, it’s easier to pull back, knowing that your child can talk or find her way through different situations. When a child appears more vulnerable or afraid, it’s easy to jump in quickly–even to speak on her behalf, as you say you do, so that she doesn’t have to endure any discomfort. Unfortunately, speaking on her behalf may only make it harder for her to find her own voice.
It’s true that temperament shows itself early and can determine how a child handles social situations. However, there are other factors:
• Parent example: A child may model behaviours of a parent who feels less comfortable in the company of others.
• Parent expectations: If a parent regularly explains a child’s behaviour by saying he’s “shy”, the behaviour may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, a parent may unintentionally perpetuate “shy” behaviour by labelling it.
Actually, there’s nothing wrong with being “shy.” Yet some parents urge their children not to cling or hide behind them when out socially. My reading of this is that parents may think of shyness as a negative behaviour and may feel that others, too, perceive their child as lacking–in self-confidence, for example. Perhaps a reframing of shyness might help. In fact, in some cases, a child’s pulling back to observe and assess the situation before deciding when and how to interact with others may be better than jumping in with great gusto. Your daughter may just need a little more time to warm up to others.
When a child is very young, hiding behind her parent may not be shyness, but her way of saying that the situation is overwhelming and that she needs her parent as a buffer. If this happens to you, rather than forcing her out from behind you, try to understand her needs and let her come forward gradually. On the other hand, try not to speak on her behalf or overprotect your reticent child from interacting with others.
Allow your child to emerge at her own pace and recognize that there are many different points between shy and outgoing. Avoid labelling her as shy. This will help her develop an ability to function comfortably without you when she is in social environments, such as school.
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