Do you have a son who is so incredibly shy that the first day of school is enough to wreak havoc on his digestive tract? Or a daughter who you worry won’t make friends due to her constant fear of meeting new people? If so, you’re not alone.
While some scientists may argue that shyness is often due to genetic predisposition, many psychologists will point to strong experiential factors. The first may bring up some feelings of empathy; if you were a shy child there’s always the possibility that some of that was passed down. The latter of the two can often be explained by past experiences of rejection or fears of future failure.
But there is good news. For children and teens who suffer from shyness, there are three major steps that parents can take to help.
1. Remind them of past successes.
Highlighting past successes doesn’t have to mean just verbally reminding a child that they did something well. It could include framing a photo of their best dance recital, placing awards or trophies in a place of prominence, placing an announcement in the newspaper or family newsletter, or asking them to mentor a younger child on the piano.
You can also “brag” to family members or friends within earshot of your child, (“I was so proud of Michelle. She scored two points in her basketball game!”) or encourage a child just for attempting something new (even if they didn’t excel at it). Some parents may disagree with the idea of giving out “participation awards,” but in the case of a shy child or teen, just trying something new can be a very big deal.
2. Find opportunities for new successes.
Just as you wouldn’t take a child who is afraid of heights up to the top of the Empire State Building, it’s not recommended that you force shy kids into unfamiliar social situations. Your best bet is to introduce them to familiar settings and activities, such as family events, close friends’ birthday parties or play dates in the comfort of their own home.
Building social confidence doesn’t just come from interaction, however. It’s largely based on self-confidence, which can be increased through solo successes in art, music, grades, individual athletics, writing and responsibilities (taking care of an older sibling or pet).
Look for opportunities to help your child soar at whatever he/she does—even if it has to start at home. Once your child hits a major milestone (such as completing an essay and entering it into a contest), be sure to praise his/her effort rather than the final result. In the case of the essay, for example, you could share the piece with friends and family and ask them to send complimentary responses, or post the piece on an online community portal or personal blog.
3. Get to the root of the problem.
Sometimes, shyness is the result of a pervasive problem that may or may not exist outside the child’s control. Bullies, cliques or an overly critical parent or sibling can lead a child to devalue his/her worth and accomplishments. Look for ways to foster discussion with children to help determine the cause of their shyness. Questions like, “What makes you feel sad?” or “When was the last time you were mad?” may spark a conversation that leads to some discovery.
One often-overlooked correlation is that shyness is often paralleled by low self-esteem due to slower (not lower) performance. While some may argue the “chicken or the egg theory”—that slow performance is a result of low self-esteem—scientists and psychologists now know that more often than not, self-esteem can be increased by increasing the speed at which results are attained. In fact, even smart kids tend to suffer a decrease of confidence when they don’t achieve their results (such as test-taking or homework) as quickly or easily as their classmates.
According to Dr. Ken Gibson, LearningRx founder and author of “Unlock the Einstein Inside: Applying New Brain Science to Wake up the Smart in your Child” there’s a good reason that kids beat themselves up over low performance. “It’s an endless cycle to try to raise the self-esteem of kids who aren’t performing well—especially if they’re placed into special education instead of trying to address the weak cognitive skills. Special education programs typically seek to accommodate struggling students with a primary strategy of lowering expectations to help those children get through school. Kids still compare themselves with peers outside of class, however, and special education students often suffer eroding self-esteem, which has the power to make their learning disabilities all that much more debilitating. But even smart kids will beat themselves up for underperforming in one subject.”
At LearningRx we see all types of kids going through our brain-training programs—from children with ADD and dyslexia to teens who want to increase their learning skills to perform better on college prep tests. One of the most reported changes from parents is their child’s increased self-esteem.
Whatever the cause, shyness is a common condition and shouldn’t be treated as a plague. Many children grow out of it and those that don’t can still go on to build healthy relationships and careers. Still, if there’s a non-genetic reason behind a child’s low self-esteem, getting to the root of the problem could mean watching him/her transform before your eyes.