What is shyness in children? What is shy behavior? Causes of shyness in children & the effect it has on general well-being. How does our modern day-and-age affect the prevalence of shyness in children. Can we or should we overcome shyness in children?
By Dr. Sarah Itzhaki
WHAT IS SHYNESS IN CHILDREN?
‘‘Sarah* wanted to enter the mess hall. All the other kids were already seated in groups, munching their lunch and chatting happily. Sarah was afraid that people would look at her, so she hung outside, trying to muster the courage to enter. But her heart raced inside her rib cage, her palms sweated and she felt a warm blush cover her face. She was ashamed that other kids might notice it. So she left. She had lost her appetite, anyway. ‘‘
Shy people are always worried about what others might think about them, (1,2) and ‘they mostly expect ‘bad reviews.‘ This is true in new or unfamiliar situations, but also in the everyday events in the shy person’s life. (2) Their fear is expressed through painful physical reactions (pounding heart, sweat, blushing, stuttering) that lead to excessive self-focus, negative thoughts and worry -all affecting their general well being. (1,3) These uncomfortable feelings prevented Sarah from pursuing her goal, which was to enjoy lunch with friends. (1,3) This inhibition is what shyness in children is all about.
WHAT IS SHY BEHAVIOR?
Shy children like Sarah suffer from an internal conflict called ‘approach avoidance conflict.‘ It means that shy children do want to approach others, but at the same time, they are too afraid to do so. As a result, the shy child may not have good approach skills, and they truly feel that everything they say is dull or stupid. Then, they may hang around next to others without joining in or avoid direct interaction altogether. (2,4) They rarely speak, and when they do, it’s in a low voice. They also avoid gazing in the eyes of others; hence, shy children may have low results in tests that require face-to-face interactions, and they may be perceived as less intelligent than they are due to their fear of talking. (4)
‘‘Jane’s science exam was oral. She studied hard and knew the material by heart. But during the exam she found it hard to express her knowledge and hardly managed to say an intelligent sentence. To her dismay, she received a very painful C-.‘‘
In preschool, kids are exposed to large and new peer groups. For shy children, this may make the start of preschool stressful. Preschool is a constant challenge for shy children, and it doesn’t ease up even after time has passed and they become more familiar with other preschoolers.
Shy children in preschool often show signs of social anxiety during free play with peers. They have depressive symptoms and lower social skills. As a result, they have lower self-esteem and lower sense of self-worth, which may lead to peer rejection. Even adults may think of shy children as uninteresting or dull. Thus, a vicious cycle may begin that only augments the shy child’s low-self esteem. During later childhood and adolescence, shyness becomes increasingly associated with loneliness, depression, social anxiety and, of course, a lower sense of self-worth and general well being. (2,4)
Shy children may feel tiny in relation to others, or wish to disappear all together.
‘‘Tom found a way to disappear. Whenever people of any age came to his house he quickly ran away and hid behind a nearby chair or under the table. Mitch‘s ‘‘switching‘‘ into objects in ‘THE TWO TUBA SWITCH‘ is a way to stretch Tom’s reality a bit to make a point.‘‘
ARE YOU SHY? YOU ARE NOT ALONE!
Nearly half of the adult population in the USA consider themselves shy, and the numbers are increasing. (1,3) Most of us know what shyness feels like, recalling at least one episode when we felt shy during our lives. (3)
‘‘I am shy!‘‘ Can you recall a situation which made you feel that way? Now how did it affect your general well being at that time?
WHY ARE WE SHY?
Shyness runs in families. About one fifth of babies are born with a tendency towards shyness.(1) The shy baby may avert his eyes to avoid intense stimulation.
‘‘Ashley was a sweet, doted-on child. But at four months of age, she would not allow anyone other than her mom even to look at her. She avoided eye contact and cried even when her aunt or grandparents tried to pick her up.‘‘
Although many children who are shy overcome it in time, many others remain shy all their lives. (1) Shyness in children may also be caused by environmental factors. Eric Erikson believes that shyness in children may develop during the “terrible twos,” when a child tries to gain independence yet remain the focus of his parents’ attention. Oh, the balance parents have to maintain to get it right!
Normal life challenges, such as a new day in pre-school, kindergarten or school, peer mockery, teasing or bullying can also induce shyness. (1) Shyness can even have a social root in a society that is achievement-oriented and does not accept imperfection or strangeness.
‘‘Jake will never forget his first day in school as an immigrant. Other kids ridiculed him, mocking his different clothes and ‘strange smell‘.”
Actually, any single incident or a repeated incident during our life—but especially one during childhood that makes us feel uncomfortable with who we are, or makes us feel unworthy may lead to shyness in children or shy behavior.
MODERN AGE FACTORS
Cultural changes within the United States include increased crime that forces children off the streets and smaller families resulting in fewer siblings and smaller peer groups. Thus, children today have less opportunity for natural, unstructured interpersonal development.
‘‘Annette hated recess. During class-time, she knew what to do. She was smart. She was a computer wiz, and spent hours on it. She’d helped kids with schoolwork more than once. But during recess, when free play was on, she was always lonely by herself. She wasn’t sure of what to say to join in the conversation. She felt that everything she said sounded out of place or just plain stupid.‘‘
Another important factor is the increasing use of computers, video games and TV as a form of non-human means of fun and play. In the past, having fun meant playing with neighborhood kids on the street. Automation is replacing ‘people serving people.‘ In many areas of life, from bank ATMs to gas stations to automated telephone answering services, it is possible to avoid dealing with human beings. (3) Technological forms of communication that may be convenient for a shy person may also increase his shyness.
SHY BOY- SHY GIRL DIFFERENCES
Shyness in children has a higher psychological cost for boys than for girls. Shyness in girls is more rewarded and accepted by parents, which results in positive interactions. However, shyness in boys is more likely to be discouraged and lead to negative interactions. Shy boys are more likely than shy girls to be socially withdrawn in preschool, displaying solitary-passive behavior that leads to adjustment difficulties. (2,4)
This site does not offer treatment options, nor does it intend to. This is our belief.
We should come to know that shyness is not a problem that needs termination. The significant adults in a shy child’s life have a major role in helping him feel better about himself. We believe that this is our role as caring adults. The rest will follow.
How? First, we must help kids understand shyness by recognizing that it is a part of who they are. It is the hardships in our lives that make us grow as a human person. No one is perfect, nor should he be.
We must be supportive of our child’s temperament, but not overprotective. This may help to overcome any initial inhibition in new and developmentally challenging situations, such as a new day in school. Helping our child engage in successful social activity is another good way. Acceptance not judgment. The child must feel safe in his emotional relationship with his parents. This depends on the parents’ ability to ‘be there‘, to be sensitive and stable and to cater to the child’s need. All this gives the child a sense of control and teaches him that his parents are available, responsive and predictable. (1,2)
We must never let our own childhood memories and frustrations interfere or get in the way! Once we accept ourselves, we will be able accept our kids’ imperfections. Love them for what they are-our precious kids.
1. Henderson, L. & Zimbardo, P. “Shyness.” Encyclopedia of Mental Health. Academic Press. San Diego, CA.
2. Rubin, K. H. and Asendorpf, J., BEd. “Social Withdrawal, Inhibition and Shyness in Childhood.” Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, publishers. NJ, 1993.
3. Payne, K. “Understanding and Overcoming Shyness.” www.counseling.caltech.edu/articles/shyness.html
4. Coplan, R. J. & Armer, M. “Talking Yourself Out of Being Shy: Shyness, Expressive Vocabulary, and Socioemotional Adjustment in Preschool.” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 2005; 51(1):20-41.