Many young children are shy around new people,
especially adults. Although the child may appear to be afraid, their
response is less likely to be caused by fearfulness than by simple
discomfort. Many children feel uncomfortable with new people until
they have gotten to know them better. Many adults are the same way!
And in the world today, it is not always a bad thing for a child to be
wary of strangers. Pushing a child to be more open is likely to lead
to self-consciousness and even more shyness in future situations. How
can we best support a child when they are feeling shy?
The biggest challenge for parents is not so much their
child's shy feelings - which we all have at times - but unhelpful or
rude comments from others who are uncomfortable with your child's
response. It might be helpful to memorize some phrases for such
occasions, such as "Thank you for your friendliness, but he needs
some time to warm up to new people. I'm sure he'll be more comfortable
with you when he gets to know you." Try to avoid labeling a child
as "shy" as this word has, unfortunately, taken on negative
connotations in our society.
One phrase that I found especially helpful when my
son's quiet ways were questioned, was "he's still learning";
for example, "He's still learning to be comfortable with new
people", "He's still learning to play with new friends"
or "He's still learning to share toys". This type of
statement will give the message to others - as well as to your child -
that he is always growing and learning, and that labels like
"shy" are therefore unrealistic and unhelpful. Then change
the subject. Focus more on your child's needs in those situations than
on the adult who has made an unkind remark. We owe more to our child
than to anyone else! Having a parent dependably on their side is
critical for every child's emotional health.
Ideally, we can stand up for our child in a way that
avoids hurting anyone's feelings. One practical way to discourage
people from intruding on your child's space is to carry him or keep
him close to you. Most adults are less likely to invade your personal
space than your child's - even though he deserves that respect no less
than you do. Toddlers are usually happier to be carried or held in
such situations, which should ease things that much more.
Unfortunately, many adults in our society mistrust,
fear, or actually dislike children, including some who are in
professions working with children. They don't make the effort to
understand the causes of a child's behavior or to give caring
responses to the child. They focus on the behavior alone and draw the
wrong conclusions - in large part because they don't know the child
well, or don't know how else to respond. If you have trouble getting
through to a particular person, it can help to use the "broken
record" technique. Just keep repeating the phrases, and
eventually they should stop what they're doing. If this isn't
effective, you might share your feelings of frustration and offer
empathy: "I'm pleased that you want to talk with my child, but
when you make comments like that, it makes us both uncomfortable.
Could I make some suggestions for ways that you can connect with
You might also want to consider unschooling your
child. Shyness is common in a school setting, which so often includes
competitiveness, teasing, bullying, negative comparisons, and even
outright rejection. Not surprisingly, research consistently finds that
homeschoolers and unschoolers are several years ahead of their peers,
both academically and socially. One of the most important benefits of
unschooling is the opportunity to interact with people of all ages.
While there is no way to force a child to be
friendlier in social situations - any more than we can force a rose to
bloom - there are things you can do to reassure your child. When you
are alone with her, you might talk about a recent get-together that
was challenging, validate her feelings, and offer encouragement:
"I remember how hard it was for me to meet new people. When we
see them next time, they won't be so new to you, and it should be a
little easier." If a situation has been especially stressful, it
might be helpful to try some doll play or art work to help her express
her feelings about what happened. If you consistently show that you
accept your child and love her unconditionally, she will then be free
to develop in all areas at her own best pace.