Maisy, 3, has been going to playdates at her friend Hayley's house since she was an infant. You'd think she'd feel right at home. But Maisy still spends at least the first half hour of every visit snuggled into her mother's lap, cautiously observing. "I kept thinking, if I took her places often enough, she'd get used to it," says her mother, Diane Hoffman, of New York City. "It never happened."
There's nothing wrong with being a little reserved. But if feeling shy keeps a child from enjoying new experiences and doing the things she truly wants to do, it can be a problem. "Being shy feels uncomfortable, and it causes us to miss out on opportunities," says Renee Gilbert, PhD, a Seattle-area clinical psychologist and creator of the Web site shakeyourshyness.com. Added up, these missed opportunities can become huge, she says.
Fortunately, a concerned parent can help a shy child learn to feel more comfortable. While the approach may vary, the shy child -- like every child -- needs space to learn what works best for him.
Is being "shy" something you're born with or a learned reaction? Apparently, the answer is both. Jerome Kagan, PhD, of Harvard University, found that a child who hesitated to approach an unfamiliar object or speak to a stranger at 21 months was likely to still be timid at 12 years old. But he also found that only a small percentage of the children were consistently shy or outgoing. The rest became more or less inhibited depending on the situation. "There's some evidence that about 15 percent of people are born with an inhibited personality, but nearly 50 percent of Americans admit to being shy in one or more areas," says Gilbert. "There's clearly a learned component."
Since many children will feel or act shy at some point during their childhood, how can you tell if your baby or young child is temperamentally inclined toward shyness? Parents of shy children say that they just knew -- and early on. "Maisy never engaged people on the street, and she'd turn her head away or bury her face into me so that people could not see her if they approached us," Hoffman says.
Stranger anxiety and separation anxiety can create shy behavior, but a truly shy baby or toddler won't be wary only of new people or upset when you leave. She'll also be less willing to reach for a new toy and more reluctant to be put down in a strange place, and she'll continue to be cautious as she gets older. "There are three things we look for with shyness," says Barbara Markway, PhD, author of Nurturing the Shy Child (St. Martin's). "There's behavior -- avoiding eye contact, turning the head away, or hiding behind the mother. There are physical manifestations of anxiety -- heart racing, blushing, or crying or thrashing about for a baby. And finally, there are thoughts and feelings. Older kids say things like, 'Everyone's staring at me' or 'I don't know what to say.' It doesn't go away either. It's an enduring, recurring thing."
Some parents feel that it's important to accept a shy child the way she is. Others focus more on teaching a child to interact more comfortably in social situations. Ultimately, it's best to combine support with encouragement. "The goal is not to eliminate shyness but to help the child work within her own personality to do the things she wants to do," Markway says. Some techniques to help your child:
"Not every child has to be a social butterfly," says Markway, and Hoffman agrees. "I was shy, and Maisy is shy, and it's not a bad thing," she says. "I just wish I'd accepted her the way she is sooner and not worried about what everyone else thinks."
In this era of paranoid parenting, we're hyperalert to everything that could possibly herald a developmental disorder. Usually, a shy child is just a shy child, but sometimes what initially appears as shy behavior may warrant a closer look from a pediatrician or psychologist to rule out a more serious problem. Things to watch for include:
KJ Dell'Antonia, coauthor of Reading with Babies, Toddlers, and Twos (Sourcebooks), is a writer in New Hampshire.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, November 2006.
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