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Shy Parents Survival Guide

Linda and her 2-year-old daughter, Mia, arrived ten minutes late for the first session of Tunes for Tots. The class was already under way, and each toddler was snuggled in his or her mother's lap, shaking a tambourine or beating a drum. The teacher didn't stop to invite Linda and Mia to join them on the floor, and Linda was too hesitant to say anything. She stood frozen, her heart pounding in her chest. Should she join the circle and clap hands, or should she wait for the song to be over? Was it okay to just take an instrument from the box, or would the teacher prefer to select one for them? No matter what she did, she knew that it would draw too much attention to herself and Mia and the fact that they were late. In a moment of panic, Linda grabbed her daughter's hand and quickly ushered her out. When Mia started whining, Linda told her, "We'll just come back next week."

For many people, the toughest part of parenthood isn't sleeplessness or dirty diapers but socializing in their new, child-centered world. In fact, research has found that almost half of all adults say that they're shy. Before having children, shy people can often avoid the circumstances that make them most uncomfortable. Standing in the corner at a cocktail party isn't ideal, but you're the only one who feels like an outsider. If you don't join a book group, you can still read on your own. However, once you become a parent, situations that can make you anxious--approaching other mothers at the playground, making small talk before a school event, or calling to arrange a playdate--become extremely important. If you avoid them, you'll be shortchanging your child.

As a psychologist in New York City, I've conducted shyness workshops for the past 15 years and have become acutely aware of the particular difficulties that shy parents face on a daily basis. Janet, for example, saw her son regularly slapped by another child in a playgroup, and she chose to leave each time it happened rather than bring herself to admonish the child or ask the other mother to step in.

Over the years, I have developed a number of techniques that have helped shy parents develop more confidence. You don't have to be the life of the playgroup in order to reach out to other parents and help your child discover the joys of friendship.

Classic Mistakes Shy Parents Make

Insisting your child speak for you. If you and your child are at the school book fair and you can't see the price of a particular item, don't suggest that she ask the mother she knows at the next table. Go over yourself. Say "Hi, I'm Kate's mom. I can't tell the price on this." Your child will learn that it's okay not to know things--and better still, you'll be teaching her how to get answers.

Blaming your child too quickly. Your fear of being judged as wrong can make you more likely to see your child as being wrong. When a conflict between your child and a friend arises (especially in front of another parent), you may be too willing to assume it's your child's fault. It feels safer and less confrontational that way, but it will also make your child feel unsupported by you.

Not being able to say no even when it's in your child's best interest. If the mother of a classmate calls to arrange a playdate and your child doesn't want to play with that child, it might feel easier to agree to the date and then tell your child that it isn't nice to hurt someone's feelings. However, she has a right to choose her playmates--and to have you respect her choices.

  1. Bait the Fish
    (Useful in playgroups or playgrounds)

    If you and your child tend to sit by yourselves, bring two similar, fun toys. Another child will probably notice them and approach you, and you can offer him one of the toys. When his mother comes over, you can concentrate on "toy management," which will give you something to say and do during any awkward pauses in conversation.
  2. Flattery
    (Perfect for playdates with other parents or playgroups)

    Everyone loves her own child best and can talk endlessly about his unique qualities. If you can't think of much to say to another mother, compliment her child. It's amazing how simple this technique is and how well it works. One client of mine, Natalie, noticed that her child's friend, Joey, was having a great time wheeling himself on a roller car around their basement. "He's going to be a race-car driver," Natalie commented. Joey's mom spent the next half hour discussing the number of play cars she has at home, her son's love for his car seat, and the way he calls out the colors of all the cars that drive by.
  3. Self-Talk
    (Useful when your child is misbehaving in public--in playgroups, on playdates, or at the supermarket, for example)

    If your child acts inappropriately in public, you may be too self-conscious to take the necessary steps to correct his behavior. But when you're lax about discipline, your child will be more likely to act up in the future. The next time this happens and you're worried that everyone is staring at you, repeat this mantra: "This week my child, next week theirs." When you step in to stop a behavior, tell yourself, "No parent likes this. No parent can do it better." The truth is that any parent watching is probably thinking, "Boy, I'm glad it's not me this time."
  4. Visualize Mother Bear
    (Useful anytime you're having trouble being assertive)

    Jane, one group member, had an 8-year-old daughter, Caroline, who repeatedly came home from school worried that her teacher didn't like her. "She tells me to pay attention, but I am!" Caroline repeatedly protested. Jane tried to reassure her. Finally, when Caroline arrived home in tears because the teacher had accused her of whispering when it had actually been someone else, Jane realized she had to step in. Another mother in our group suggested, "When things like this happen, I picture myself as a mother bear." The key to this technique is to imagine a large, protective mama bear who's ready to do anything to save her young, and then to use the feelings that picture conjures up to do whatever is necessary. The image worked for Jane, and she also prepared so that the talk with the teacher wouldn't deteriorate into an angry exchange. She wrote down a few possible scripts, rehearsed and memorized them. The discussion went well, and Caroline was much happier at school afterward.
  5. Slip on Cement Shoes
    (Useful anytime you'd rather run than stay and work out a problem)

    If you're confronted with a social situation that makes you want to flee--you arrive late for a group or your child is acting up--imagine you're wearing cement shoes and can't go anywhere. Take one action to try to resolve the problem. If it doesn't work, and you feel you must go, then go. Next time, try two things before you bolt. Eventually, you'll realize that sticking around to solve the problem is empowering for everyone.
  6. Play Adult Show-and-Tell
    (Good for playgroups, informal playground get-togethers, and playdates)

    Select an interesting article or book about kids, and rehearse ahead of time what you'll say about it. Pass it around, and enjoy the fact that you've sparked conversation without having to be the center of attention.

Copyright © 2003 Bonnie Jacobson, Ph.D. Reprinted with permission from the May 2003 issue of Parents magazine.