We often think of shyness as something that needs to be overcome, but I like to remind myself that shy kids tend to grow up as intelligent, sensitive, creative adults. I was very shy as a kid and always thought the extroverts looked like they were having more fun. When our children were born I thought if we did enough dance lessons, music lessons, sports, etc. that eventually they would blossom with self-confidence and become the extrovert I wished that I was. Turns out, apparently it’s a little more nature than nurture, at least in our family. “Most shy children are born that way,” says Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Harvard University and a Parents adviser. “Being sensitive to new people and situations seems to be genetic.”
From the time my kids were toddlers, they would hide behind me in a new situation. At my oldest’s pre-school graduation, all the other parents were beaming with pride and shooting video as their kids walked across the stage and performed their talent. I was holding my breath and hoping that the tears that had been flowing since early morning would stay at bay long enough for my oldest to count to 10 in Spanish. She had been stressing about getting up on that stage all day, but in the end with lots of encouragement, she did it!
Here’s some things we have learned by raising three self-proclaimed shy kids.
- Help your child prepare.
Let them know well ahead of time about new situations, and give them time to think about it. Our kids were much more willing to try new things if they knew what to expect. Even vacations would make them a little anxious, until they knew exactly where we were going, how long it would take, and who we would see there. With enough preparation, my shy kids have played piano in church, given presentations to groups of adults, and performed in musical theatre. Each of these took months of preparation though.
- Be patient.
It takes time to adapt in new situations. My kids are never the first to jump in at a party. If we are there long enough though, they will be running around with the other kids having a blast. Let them assess the situation, and adjust in their own time. According to Susan Cain, author of the bestselling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, “These kids have a longer runway before they’re comfortable enough to take off and fly”. I love that analogy – alot. (For some powerful thoughts on our culture’s tendency to undervalue introverts, check out Cain’s book.)
- Listen to their fears.
It’s easy to dismiss their concerns, but listening to exactly what is bothering them and empathizing can really go a long ways to helping them know it will be ok. Things that might seem easy to even the most reserved adult, can seem daunting to a quiet child.
- Role play at home.
I’m never a big fan of role play to be honest, but out of desperation we tried this and it actually worked. At birthdays and holidays my then very young kids knew they were supposed to say “thank you” but often had trouble speaking up among a crowd when everyone was watching. The kids had the best time wrapping up fake presents, and practicing saying “thank you” loud and proud in the safety of our living room after opening their “gifts”. It really did help them speak up during the next round of holiday gift giving. We have role-played a new sport, the first day of school, and all kinds of social situations. At the least it helps them laugh about it a little and take away the unknown.
- Challenge them, without putting them on the spot.
Try new things if they are willing with encouragement, and help them find their fit. The more new things you can get them to try, the more chance they will find something that helps them shine.
My quiet teen didn’t like soccer, or swimming, or dance, but the moment she stepped on the volleyball court in 3rd grade she found her place. She shakes at the idea of singing in front of people, but she can spike a ball in a gym full of cheering spectators and still smile. My easily embarrassed pre-teen won’t ask the jr high teacher to help him with his locker, but he can get up on a pitchers mound with 2 outs, and be calm and collected. It’s rewarding to see them find their place, and builds confidence in other areas.
- Lead by example.
Help them see that even adults have to overcome shyness and some anxiety in new situations. Talk with them about the things you do through work or for fun that might not be in your comfort zone, and that is ok. Help them see the rewards you have gained in stepping out of that comfort zone.
- See their inner peace.
Quiet kids often shine with an inner peace, and once people get to know them they are charming and amazing. It takes my kids awhile to form relationships, but once they do they are an incredibly loyal friend, with so much to offer. It is a blessing when others take the time to learn about them, and get to know them. Be thankful for these special people who become part of our journey.
I have from time to time looked with envy upon parents whose children easily talk to strangers, run into a new situation excitedly or love to perform for a crowd. But when I see my kids speak up for themselves, enjoy something they love, or discover new independence, I know this is a real accomplishment. I am so proud of these cautious, deep-thinking, warm and loving individuals and so blessed to be their mom. The world will be a more thoughtful, gentle place because of them.