It's a jungle out there


Helping a shy child navigate the social structure of the playground Story by Tracy Binius, Illustrations by Stephanie Manner Wagner

Illustration by Stephanie Manner Wagner:  

The start of each school year is about more than just new clothes, getting the right teacher and finding the classroom. It signals the start of the social dance.

As the school year begins, children are trying to figure out a new social structure. They size up one another and look to find their niche in the class or at a new school.

It's an annual transition-and a common trigger for shyness.

A shy child's behavior is often misunderstood, which compounds their difficulties fitting in at the start of school. Classmates might think they are stuck-up or unfriendly. Teachers may think they are slow or might simply overlook them in favor of kids who speak up more. Worse yet, children who are obviously shy and sensitive may find they are targets for bullies.

To avoid showing their vulnerability, some shy children become experts at expressing themselves in structured ways. Shyness can be expertly concealed by the student who excels in theater or debate but feels painfully awkward at social gatherings, or by the teen who clowns around in class, rebels against authority or acts outrageously to hide insecurities.

Whatever it looks like on the outside, shyness can be painful and lonely on the inside. Parents should not dismiss or ignore shyness because it can not only make growing up less enjoyable, but can have long-lasting consequences for children who never gain the confidence to navigate the social world and pursue their true interests.

Parents and children who believe some of the common myths about shyness may be less likely to take helpful actions.

Myth 1: Shyness = Being quiet Being quiet and staying away from social situations is one way shyness can be expressed. However, some introverted children who are quiet and enjoy solitary activities are not shy at all.

In the book Please Understand Me: Character and Temperament Types, authors David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates describe introverts as people who gain energy from solitary activities and get drained from prolonged social interactions. Introverted children may enjoy getting absorbed in their complicated daydreams on the edge of the playground while the other children play.

But the shy child hangs on the edge of the playground because she doesn't know how to join groups that have already formed. She may be torn apart inside by a desire to connect with other children and the fear about what to say, what they will think of her and whether she will be rejected.

On the other hand, there are shy extroverts. Stanford professor and shyness researcher Philip G. Zimbardo coined the term to describe people who conduct themselves beautifully in social settings or even as performers, but who are full of self-doubt.

Zimbardo writes that shyness symptoms may involve the entire body, mind and emotions of a child. Symptoms can include a rapid heart rate, increased perspiration and disruption of digestion, worry, desire for perfectionism, self-doubt, shame and loneliness.

Molly Guagenti, a 4-year-old from Elk Grove Village who has always been extremely sensitive to new people and new situations, offered the simplest and perhaps most accurate definition of shyness: "fear."

Myth 2: People are born shy From birth, Molly was a very inhibited baby. "No one could hold her but me," says her mother, Lisa. It might appear that Molly was born shy.

Research on infants has shown that about 20 percent are born with an inhibited temperament that makes them highly sensitive to new situations and new people. "When their threshold for social contact is being crossed, temperamentally inhibited babies attempt to regulate their social contact," says Alan Levy, a child therapist and associate professor of clinical social work at Loyola University Chicago. To avoid overstimulation, such babies may look away, yawn, fall asleep or become agitated and cry.

In his book Shyness: A Bold New Approach, Bernardo J. Carducci explains that temperamental inhibition may seem like shyness, but it is not. Being shy requires self-consciousness that children do not have until about age 2. While many temperamentally inhibited children retain that behavioral style as they grow up, some become extroverted children and adults. "Temperament is not destiny," writes Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast.

Experiences, family relationships, exposure to social situations, education, culture, thoughts and interpretations of life experiences all influence whether a child will develop shyness.

Myth 3: I am an oddball Carducci reports that nearly everyone has experienced shy feelings at some point. He found about 20 percent of elementary schoolchildren and 50 percent of teenagers are shy. Yet, shy children often feel they are alone.

Shyness has a way of skewing a person's perspective. Shy people often think that everyone else is noticing and evaluating them, and that they are the only ones who feel uncomfortable. They tend to zero in on the most socially accomplished people in the room as the standard for comparison. These are tricks of the shy mind, Carducci says.

Myth 4: Introduce a child as shy Sometimes parents are embarrassed or disappointed that their child is timid. Or they are afraid their child's shy behavior is seen as rude by friends or relatives, so they explain apologetically that their child is shy. One problem with this is that it does not give the child any guidance on how to understand his own feelings.

In the book, The Shy Child: Overcoming and Preventing Shyness from Infancy to Adulthood by Philip G. Zimbardo and Shirley L. Radl, the authors insist parents should not label or allow anyone else to label their child as shy. Instead, parents should stand up and explain their child's rights. For example, if a child shrinks back from an affectionate relative, the parent can explain, "He needs a little time to get to know you better, after all, he was only a few months old on your last visit."

Labeling can create self-fulfilling prophecies. The label signals disapproval and can actually create shyness and low self-esteem in children who may simply be introverted or slow to warm up to new situations.

Ann Alexander, an attorney who lives in Oak Park, recalls how her childhood reticence was exacerbated when adults called her shy rather than noticing her strengths as a thoughtful and observant child. Sometimes adults would think it was a challenge or a game to try to draw her out of her shell with teasing and cutesy games. "It would be humiliating and would make me withdraw more," Alexander says.

Nancy Luepke, of Oak Park, also felt her introverted personality as a child was misunderstood and labeled. "My mom used to call me a stick-in-the-mud. I internalized that message that it's not OK to want to be alone and not out there with other kids," Luepke says.

Myth 5: It's a personality trait Shyness is common and felt by nearly everyone at some point. It's not necessarily a negative. Shy people tend to have some very positive personality traits. They often are good listeners who are sensitive to other people's feelings. They tend not to dominate conversations. They tend to develop deep friendships.

Shyness becomes a problem when it limits a child's choices and enjoyment of life: If fear keeps them from joining clubs, going to parties or taking up hobbies they might enjoy, or if they are stigmatized or bullied by other children.

If shyness restricts social interactions, it can actually interfere with a child's maturation and development. That's because children learn many life skills by interacting with other children. In middle school and high school, children make sense of their own identity through social comparisons. "Shyness can get in the way of that whole process of self-discovery and self-definition," says Levy.

If the problem continues into the adult years, it can have significant consequences: missed opportunities, difficulty making friends or finding a mate, difficulty advancing into a leadership role at work, possibly even poor mental and physical health, as good health has been linked to positive social connections.

According to Carducci, a professor at Stanford Business School followed graduates 10 years out of school and found that the only consistent and significant predictor of success was verbal fluency-a trait that shy people often cannot muster.

Myth 6: Shyness is forever Lisa Guagenti watched her daughter, Molly, as an inhibited baby and a shy preschooler and remembered her own struggles with childhood shyness. "I always felt like I had this anxiety to manage. Things were harder for me. Things would weigh heavily on me that other people would just do," she says. "Thinking of what she will go through kind of breaks my heart."

Through force of will, Guagenti worked at overcoming her shyness. "Through grade school, I often felt like I was missing out," she says. Her sister was more outgoing and involved in activities, so that motivated her to work at coming out of her shell. "I remember making some decisions . . . resolving to work at talking to people. I learned to ask people questions and get them to talk about themselves. I learned those kinds of things along the way."

Guagenti is not alone in overcoming shyness. Carducci has found that among people who are not shy, 75 percent claim to have been shy at some point in their lives. So shyness can change over time. People can change their behavior, thoughts and emotions. The first step is not believing the myths and misinformation about shyness.


Parenting the shy child Nurturing a shy child means using basic parenting rules: Help them feel safe, supported and inspire their confidence with good social experiences.

Babies and toddlers Until age 2 children kids are not necessarily shy, but inhibited by new people and places. Respect this. Keep babies comfortable and secure.

Preschoolers Alan Levy, of Loyola, advises you pay attention to a child's cues. Are they overwhelmed? "Frequent overstimulating in social situations and breakdowns, can lead to shyness," he says.

Encourage, but don't force. Give an inhibited child extra time to feel comfortable in a new situation. Then, slowly give guidance on fitting in. Help them approach a compatible child or find an activity they enjoy.

Lisa Guagenti, of Elk Grove Village, has learned. She prepares her daughter Molly, 4, in advance for new situations by explaining details. She arrives early so Molly can warm up and watch other children. She avoids certain activities that are not a good fit for Molly's personality.

Elementary-age children Experiences can increase or minimize shyness in these years. It is a time of intense social interaction. Children learn interpersonal skills and how they compare to others.

"Children size each other up very quickly," Levy says. They know where they rate-best in math, second fastest runner. There is a lot of teasing, especially among boys. "A child doesn't have to be the most popular or best at everything, but should feel good about himself in a few areas," Levy says.

Help children find areas of interest where they can make friends and feel confident, such as sports, theater, music, a church or community group.

Some kids may need help making friends. Parents-especially shy ones-should make an extra effort be a good model. Be first to greet people or strike up a conversation. Use people's name, look for opportunities to compliment and help others. Teach children how to ask for help from clerks, to use proper phone etiquette and the polite way to interrupt a conversation.

These are not always learned by observing. They must be taught.

Books about healthy friendships are a good spark for parents to share their feelings and experiences.

Teens Teens are breaking free from parents and becoming independent individuals. Peer relationships are critical, and shyness can hurt.

At this age, shyness is more of a handicap. Author Bernardo J. Carducci writes "young children seem to accept their shy classmates without much notice." But teens "slowly stop forgiving this trait in their friends. . . . Because the consequences can be so devastating, many adolescents try to hide this personality trait." They do this by avoiding school and activities, concentrating on fitting into a clique or club, burying themselves in their studies or rebelling.

Keep communication open. "It is extremely important to listen to children at this age," says Charlotte Kraus, Illinois School Counselor Association president. Teens need adults who they feel comfortable talking to, who take them seriously and give direction, Kraus says. "They know which adults they can approach, and they'll talk to them about these things."

Parents should teach social interaction by doing it, such as greeting people, beginning and ending a conversation gracefully and complimenting others. A good book on social graces is Dale Carnegie's, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Watch for warning signs that a teen needs professional help, such as falling grades, withdrawal from friends, lack of interest in school and frequent crying.



Tracy Binius is a writer living in Oak Park.



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