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“Shy” is a term used to describe many children, especially those who have a temperament or a personality type that is more timid, inhibited, hesitant, or self-conscious. According to Merriam-Webster.com, “shy” is defined as “feeling nervous and uncomfortable about meeting and talking to people”.
Generally, most children who are shy can get over their nervousness after a little while -- after observing other children in the environment or familiarizing themselves enough with their surroundings. They would then feel more comfortable to explore the environment on their own, or to join in with the other children. Shyness within a normal range is common in many young children and teenagers, and often does not substantially interrupt their day to day success.
However, there are those whose shyness and nervousness do not dissipate as readily. These kids tend to feel worse and more nervous as the minutes pass, and often feel the need to escape from the anxiety-provoking situation. In their minds, anxious thoughts might replay over and over with statements such as “I’m going to look silly”, “They’re going to judge me”, “I can’t do it”, “I don’t know what to say”, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do”. The more they don’t engage with others in the moment, the more distanced, out of place, or awkward they might feel. This can be especially magnified for teenagers who view peer belongingness and acceptance as crucial to their level of social comfort.
Is it simply shyness?
At times, what is seen simply by others as shyness is experienced as something deeper and more painful within the child, and may be diagnosed as social anxiety. Although only a small portion of shy people can be categorized as having social anxiety, it is a very real struggle.
Social anxiety is a subcategory of Anxiety Disorders and manifests as an intense fear or anxiety about social situations wherein the individual feels he/she will be negatively judged or evaluated by others. Children with social anxiety may go out of their way to avoid people and social gatherings and would rather stay in their comfort zone (e.g., being by themselves, or being with people they are comfortable with).
It is important for us to keep in mind, however, that children who are shy and those with social anxiety do not necessarily want to be alone. They do want friends, they do want to be part of what’s going on, they do want to be social -- it is just extra hard for them to do so. And the nervousness they feel in the moment can make every minute effortful. In more severe situations, social interactions can feel utterly unbearable.
Many such kids suffer in silence. On the outside, you might simply see a child looking timid, quiet, unobtrusive; or, you might see someone who looks tense, eyes fervently scanning the room, shoulders hunched, legs shaking; you might even see someone who seems aloof, cold, uninterested, but, on the inside, an emotional storm is underway. Their minds go on overdrive and physical sensations reflecting the inner tension emerges: palpitating heart, sweaty palms, knots in the stomach, a despairing desire to run away.
So as parents, what can we do to help our children feel better in social situations?
1. Know your child.
The first part of being able to help our children is knowing what situations make them feel nervous, shy, or withdrawn. We need to know our kids’ temperament, personality, thoughts, and feelings, in order to be able to pre-empt or realize when they are anxious.
2. Allow them the space to express how they feel.
It is important that our children feel safe enough to open up to us about what they are experiencing. Part of the remedy to combat nervousness is to feel supported in the moment. We need to know when our children need our help. Give them the space to explain what they are going through without feeling judged. Admitting that we are shy or anxious is a very vulnerable confession to make and it is difficult for many kids to put this into words. If your child does not feel comfortable verbalizing his/heer thoughts or feelings in the moment, you can have a ‘secret sign’ that would signal his/her anxiety (e.g., a hand squeeze to let you know he/she feels very shy and uncomfortable) and to which you can respond accordingly.
3. Acknowledge their experience.
Adults who do not feel the level of shyness or anxiety that their children feel in social situations may have a hard time understanding what the child is actually experiencing. Anxiety often does not fit into rational logical understanding. We might wonder- “Why are you so shy with your classmate from school?”, “What is making you so nervous to speak to the salesperson? “ It is important for us to communicate to our children that we understand and acknowledge what they are going through. We may not feel what they feel in the moment, but we can empathize and understand. Communicating this can go a long way towards providing our children with the comfort and reassurance that they need.
4. Help them resolve the problem in the moment.
Collaborate with your child on how to best act upon the situation. We can give them options on how to go about this. For example, if your child is too shy to join in a game at a party, we can give the option of: a) first observing and then joining in after 2 games; b) accompanying them to the game area and staying nearby so that they can turn to you if any problem arises; or c) asking a friend they are comfortable with to accompany them in joining the games. This way, we provide support to our children but still encourage them to overcome their fears and enjoy the experience.
5. Collect successes together.
It is important to build social confidence in our children, and one way of doing this is to accumulate triumphs over challenges. We must encourage our children to persevere through the shyness, the anxiety, the discomfort, and to eventually defeat that which is feared. We can break down the troubling situation to small steps that can be overcome one at a time, and we can celebrate each baby victory. The more our children ‘collect’ successes, the more confident they will become in similar situations in the future.
As parents, one of our main priorities in life is to keep our children safe and create a world for them where they can thrive and feel happy and secure. In a psychological and emotional sense, this is what we need to do when our kids experience significant anxiety in social situations. We need to help them feel safe and secure so that they can go forth and show the world their full, wonderful selves. We can serve as emotional anchors that soothe and steady their worries and apprehensions in the moment, and equip them with the tools to triumph.