When she was three years of age, I unjustly concluded that my daughter was a “shy child.” I used to make excuses about her reticence and unfairly ascribed her anti-social behavior to shyness. She was slow to warm with strangers, clammed up when in a crowd, hid behind my back, or refused to initiate interaction with children her age. As time went by, I thankfully realized her “shyness” was not something to be sorry, nor embarrassed, about. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being shy. This I came to realize.
Shyness is actually a personality trait in children, not a “fault”, which, with lots of help and encouragement from parents, can be overcome. Some research even suggests that shyness is culturally inherent and even fostered in some societies. In reality, shyness is basic, a universal feeling which may develop as a reaction to new stimuli. Shyness can be a mixture of the feeling of fear coupled with curiosity and interest.
Infants “shy away” from strangers. Younger toddlers and preschoolers may gaze down, physically cling to a parent and /or suck their thumbs as a reaction to unfamiliar social stimuli like new children in a classroom. Children under the age of three, for example are normally very “outgoing” and bubbly. They act before they think. Sometimes, however, the following year brings about a drastic change: they become withdrawn and “shy.” This is because at the age of three, four, and five children undergo a stronger sense of stranger anxiety and the fear of being embarrassed. Hence, they retreat into their own comfort zone and stay quiet, out of the scrutiny of strangers and children.
Should we be worried about our shy child? No, not at the onset. Shyness is absolutely normal in an equally normal context of being at a new school or location, in the presence of unfamiliar adults or care-givers, or confronted with a brand new task. It becomes an adaptive response to different situations. Even adults who are introduced to a crowd full of strangers tend to take a step back, emotionally, as well as physically.
What can we do to help our preschooler hop over the shy-wagon?
1. Don’t push, don’t rush. Children, unlike adults, have their own clocks. In fact, they don’t even have a sense of “human time.” They take their time getting to know their classroom, teachers and classmates. Sometimes, a child may use up an entire month getting to know the routines and is comforted only by sitting on one particular chair in one particular spot in the room! Pushing the preschool child into a situation which he initially perceives as threatening will also push him inwardly. And to make things worse, pressuring him to get to know his friends “right away” threatens his own pace in building social skills. This is overcome by a gradual, patient process and there is no quick fix.
2. Label not. Children tend to fulfill parents’ prophecies so it is best that we avoid labeling a child as “shy”. “Oh, she’s shy, that’s why she’s here with me…” or “I’m sorry, he’s really a shy boy. He won’t be playing with your son yet…” Statements like these will transmit to your child that his feelings of shyness are wrong and beg for apologies. One cannot “pull” a child out of shyness. Making him feel competent is what we are after, not putting him down.
If we want our child to be more sociable when he visits with a rarely-seen relative, tell him what is expected of him: “Tita Angie would like a kiss on the cheek or you can shake her hand when you see her.” Telling him “not to be shy” will surely make him clam up even more!
If he must hear that you are talking about him and his “shyness”, change your words and say, “Yes, my son is a very reserved boy, but he comes around after a while…” or “He prefers to play alone for a while because he likes his privacy. He becomes chatty later on.” There are always better, nicer and milder terms to replace “shy.” Use them!