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 Sometimes, however, the following year brings about a drastic change: they become withdrawn and “shy.”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!
3. Thou shall not put him “on the spot.”
Reserved children certainly do not want to be in the limelight, so whatever you do, avoid making him the center of everyone’s attention at all cost! Announcing to never-before-seen guests that Mateo “is a whiz at the piano” or that “Joseph dances like Michael Jackson” is like asking for the moon. A child “performs” only for persons familiar to him: those he trusts. To spring such a request without warning totally disregards a child’s feelings.
For any child to “go up on stage” or perform in front of total strangers, the confidence level has to be very high. Not many preschool children will have mustered that much courage to display skills in the presence of people they do not know, or trust. The sensitive preschool age is the period for building self-esteem and for getting to know one’s self through the environment. If the situation is new, the surroundings are unfamiliar, and people are unknown, the child becomes completely vulnerable and will react accordingly. Think about this: speaking in public is the acknowledged number one fear of adults. What more for children?
4. Appreciate with a hug.
Your precious little treasure needs to be told and shown how much you love and appreciate him. He is a unique child who approaches situations differently. Accept that he has his own style of dealing with new things, that he is slow to warm up to strangers, or that he prefers to be the “observer” in the classroom. A hug says so many things and tells him you allow him to be unique.
5. Build vocabulary.
Very young children act and react differently from what adults expect also because of the lack of appropriate words in their still-growing vocabulary. They are at a loss for words, literally. As parents, already gifted with years of education and experience, our role is to provide our child with words that he can use to describe his feelings and intentions.
A reticent child may act withdrawn because he does not know how to approach and join another child at play. Fear of being rejected by other children may also cause a child to avoid playing with them, thus being awarded the term “shy boy” by others. Teaching the child to “use words,” like “May I play with you?” or even a simple one-word sentence such as “play?” may do the trick.
6. Start in small groups.
The younger the child, the smaller the group. This was a common-sense rule-of-thumb teachers were taught in Education School. Young children are easily overwhelmed by noise and crowds. Starting with a one-on-one playgroup with another child of the same age will make the transition from home to school a little less daunting. Having to deal with just one other person makes the task of socializing easier.
Invite a friend’s son or daughter over to your home. That way, you eliminate too many “new things” in your child’s world. The home is still constant, you are still around, and the toys are still the same. The only “change” is the entrance of another human being of the same height, frame, and language.
Take turns at visiting each other’s homes. After a few months (depending on your child’s personality, of course), invite another child, if possible, of the same age group. The circle of friends gradually grows, but still in a manageable setting.
Keep in mind that “shyness” is not all bad, and it should not be seen as such, whatever the child’s age. There are desirable qualities attached to being shy, among them, modesty, being reserved, and observant. Some say that innately shy children grow up to be better listeners and loyal friends. Growing children are vulnerable to shyness as a coping mechanism; however, when the insecure feelings of shyness are acknowledged, the child is better appreciated and supported by sensitive parents. The child is able to move on, build confidence and learn that the unfamiliar world can be a relatively safe place to be himself in.
Aina Arcilla-Lacson, M.A.