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When a Child Feels Shy

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 him?"

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.

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Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.