Monday, August 25, 2008




The Shy Child

My two-year-old daughter didn’t talk for the first few months of preschool. But I had no idea; Sarah was a real chatterbox at home.

It wasn’t until her teachers asked permission to have her tested by a speech therapist that I learned the full extent of her quietness at school. The speech therapist concluded—after straining to hear Sarah’s whispered responses—it wasn’t that Sarah couldn’t speak, it was that she wouldn't speak, at least not yet.

When I was Sarah’s age, my parents clearly recall, I was always talking. Store clerks, waiters, a telephone pole–it didn’t matter. I happily placed myself in the center of the action. My child, however, was the opposite. She is what the preschool teachers call “slow to warm up.”

Shyness expert Jonathan M. Cheek, Ph.D., has a more scientific name for it: “slowness to adapt to novel stimulus.” Cheek is a psychology professor at Wellesley College and the author of Conquering Shyness: The Battle Anyone Can Win (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989). He has also written a chapter on shyness in a handbook for pediatricians describing the signs of shyness and ways to address it early on (see sidebar for "Nine Ways to Help a Shy Child). Sarah’s “selective mutism” – the choosing not to speak in certain situations – is one of those signs.

Professor Cheek defines shyness as the tendency to feel tense, worried or awkward during social interactions, especially when dealing with unfamiliar people or places. This shyness can manifest itself in three ways: the physical, the cognitive, and in observable outward behaviors.

The physiological symptoms of shyness can include stomach aches, heart beat speeding up, sweating or blushing. The cognitive (or internal) aspects can involve acute public self-consciousness, self-critical thoughts and worries of being judged negatively by others. And the outward signs are most often quietness, cautiousness, awkward body language, avoidance of eye contact and a general withdrawing from social interactions.

Shyness is one of the few temperamental traits whose early signs in infancy are often clear, Cheek says, such as withdrawing or crying when presented with an unfamiliar person, place or toy. Infants with this highly reactive temperament in their first year are more likely to still be fearful of strangers as they turn three and are more likely to be described as shy by their kindergarten teachers.

Between 33 to 44 percent of school-age children and adults in this country label themselves as shy. Studies have suggested that extreme shyness in adults can create significant barriers to achieving satisfaction in love, work, recreation and friendship.

Knowing this, my question for Professor Cheek was simple: what can I do now as Sarah’s mother to help her with her shyness? I arranged to attend his seminar on shyness one day at Wellesley College and to stay afterward to talk with him and a few students.

Sarah, now seven, heard me making the arrangements and asked to go. In fact, she begged.

I was eager to show Sarah what I do for work and Professor Cheek graciously agreed. Sarah talked non-stop the whole way there, right up until I opened the door to the classroom. For the next two hours, she didn’t move, say a word or look directly at anyone. Most onlookers would have thought: poor kid, look where her mom has dragged her to now.

And that’s one of the classic problems for shy people, explains Professor Cheek. Their social anxiety and fear is often misinterpreted as disinterest, boredom or lack of intelligence or understanding. This can hurt them academically in how they are perceived by teachers and socially in how they are perceived by peers.

Professor Cheek and his students, however, knew these signs and didn’t press Sarah to answer their questions (though they did politely ask a few) or act offended by her inability to make eye contact. She was among kindred spirits. And being understood is perhaps the greatest gift the shy child can receive they all assured me.

Conversely, research suggests that parents who are disappointed or embarrassed by the fact that their children are not “more outgoing” or “adventuresome,” can compound the negative effects of shyness. Perhaps without even being conscious of it, parents who are not shy themselves may be imposing a personal or cultural ideal that will never be a good fit for the shy child.

In retrospective interviews with painfully shy adults, many expressed deep regret that doctors and teachers had ignored their childhood shyness. They wished some adult had become their advocate by validating their problem and persuading their parents to help them deal more effectively with it at an early age.

In other words, parents who are sensitive to their child’s nature can take a proactive role in helping their child develop positive relationships with playmates and to participate in social activities. Done early on, this work can greatly lessen the negative impact of shyness in years to come.

The reality that I could give birth to a shy child (two, actually) came as a surprise to me. The excruciating anxiety and discomfort Sarah feels in most new situations, I seek out as adventure and fun. I am, after all, a reporter—able to walk up to complete strangers and ask the most personal questions. My husband, Kevin, however, cringes at the very idea.

As family lore tells it, if Kevin’s brother and his wife hadn’t asked me to join them on a “blind double date” there would be no Sarah today. That’s how painfully shy Kevin is in most social situations.

Suggested reading:

Professor Cheeks says there is a genetic component to being predisposed to shyness, but experience and coping skills will play just as an important a role. Research suggests that about 15 percent of the population has an inherited tendency to be shy.

I joked that Kevin’s introversion must have been genetically stronger than my extroversion. Jennifer Odessa Grimes, a researcher at Wellesley College and protége of Professor Cheek, was quick to point the difference between shyness and introversion, a mistake people often make. Those who prefer to spend time alone rather than with others, but feel comfortable when they are in social settings, are “non-anxious introverts.” So while they may chose to be unsocial, they are not shy.

The opposite of shyness, therefore, is not extroversion, but rather social self-confidence. The problem for truly shy people is that their anxiety prevents them from participating in a social life, even when they really want to.

Grimes describes herself as having been a shy kid and remembers particular social phobias that made her more anxious than the average child. In a follow-up e-mail, she wrote that many of the accomplishments she’s most proud of, she’s not sure she could have done without her parents’ love and support.

“It's empowering, and when you can learn to work past fear to realize passion, your parents show you that you should, and that what you're doing is worthy of their support (and therefore your greatest effort), you are best set up for success,” she wrote.

She encouraged me to keep looking at things from Sarah’s more reserved perspective and to offer as much encouragement to her as possible. So instead of telling Sarah after the interview that she should have spoken up, smiled more, or at least looked at people when they spoke to her, I congratulated her for coming on an assignment with me—and enjoying herself, though to me she looked miserable and uncomfortable.

Grimes gave me a great gift in saying that “having a mother who is supportive of her and tries to understand her means the world to her, whether or not she is capable of telling you that now.”

Nine Ways to Help a Shy Child

  1. Know when to get outside help. If you and your child have difficulty with the above, seek out a mental health professional who can screen for social phobia, selective mutism, and Asperger syndrome.






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