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Shyness in Children
By Riikka Melartin, Psy.D.
The first two definitions of “shy” in the Merriam Webster dictionary are “Easily frightened: timid,” and “Disposed to avoid a person or thing.” Being easily frightened is many people’s main association with shyness and goes hand in hand with the assumption of not being well-adjusted. However, we should remember that traits that are valued vary across times and cultures: just because our mainstream culture prizes traits like leadership and assertiveness, doesn’t mean that a sensitive and reserved child has a problem.
When I worked in the public schools, I sometimes would see teachers being unnecessarily worried about immigrant children who either came from a culture where being quiet and following authority were prized in school, or who naturally (and adaptively) hung back to initially observe and learn the new culture and language. In older grades, shy or quiet students may be marked down for insufficient participation in class, whereas in other countries, they may be rewarded for silent, attentive listening of lecture-type teaching.
Some of the positives of having a reserved, shy temperament is that these children tend to not get into scrapes as much— get physically hurt or into trouble with authorities. The shy child is not going to try daredevil stunts on the playground to get attention. They also tend to have stable friendships since anyone who is willing to take the trouble to get to know a slow-to-warm child must quite like them, and there is less friendship drama, as shy youngsters tend to have a few close friends rather than a coterie of shifting acquaintances.
So, when should you worry about a child being too shy? It is worth taking a closer look if a child who has previously been easily outgoing, becomes shy. It could be a temporary developmental stage: for example, with physical and hormonal changes, teenagers may go through a period of agonizing self-consciousness.
Or it might be an adaptive, temporary reaction to changing circumstances, such as moving to a new school or country. However, if there are no such factors to explain the change, or if it continues for long or causes distress, you should explore whether something more negative is happening.
A child who is being bullied can become scared and socially avoidant. Someone dealing with depression can become withdrawn and isolated. In these cases, the root causes need to be addressed, as the behavioral change is a symptom, not the problem itself.
Finally, shyness can tip over to what is called “social anxiety,” which is when social interactions cause stress and fear out of proportion to the circumstances. Sometimes the anxiety is related to specific situations, such a public speaking (a common fear even among adults) and thus does not interfere much with daily functioning. At other times, however, the anxiety can be almost crippling, to the point that the individual has a hard time focusing (not good for learning, making friends, or even running errands or making phone-calls.)
The good news is that social anxiety is very treatable through cognitive behavioral therapy. Wherever your child falls on the continuum of reserved to outgoing, a good strategy is to be supportive and respectful of their temperament, be aware of and address any major behavioral changes, and consult with a pediatrician and child therapist when in doubt.
Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist.
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