Shy kids: Do we really need to change them?

Do we really need to "fix" our quiet kids? Here's how to work with shyness—and why shy kids are awesome.
Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

It was the first day of a new preschool program, and the instructor was leading the group in a rowdy warm-up. My three-year-old son, Seth, sat quietly and watched the other kids shouting out answers. When the instructor noticed he wasn’t participating, she singled him out and tried to have him join in.

“Actually, he’s happy to listen to his friends,” I said, as a way to redirect her attention and let my son know it was OK that he wasn’t speaking up. There was a time I would have prompted him to answer—even when I knew it wouldn’t help. I worried his introverted personality affected the way people saw him. I was envious of parents with outgoing kids; I wanted everyone to know he was a great kid, too. I was afraid he would miss out on being part of the fun.

We live in a society that places a lot of value on extroverted people. When I found myself with a kid who had the exact opposite personality, I knew it was important that we learn how to support him. It wasn’t easy, though. I often felt judged when Seth was reluctant to respond to an adult’s questions, or when he held back from joining activities.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Parents can view these situations as opportunities to let their quiet kids know it’s alright to speak up as much or as little as they’re comfortable with. Jenny Hill, a Calgary mom of Jacqueline, 6, and Anderson, 4, doesn’t give excuses for her kids’ shyness. “I was a shy child, so I know what it’s like to have people not understand it.” She encourages her children to share their names, if they’re asked, but she’s also OK with repeating the answers for them if the words come out too quietly.

Psychotherapist and parenting educator Andrea Nair, of London, Ont., says parents need to remove judgment and shaming. “Don’t label the child as ‘shy’ or make him feel bad about what he isn’t doing.” She suggests trying to empathize with your child’s more introverted nature and letting him know you understand his feelings.

Michael Reist, a retired teacher, counsellor and author of three books on kids and schools, agrees. He believes we should shift our focus away from trying to change a quiet child’s personality.

“When parents or other adults make attempts to correct shyness,” he says, “the child hears the message that he doesn’t fit in. Instead, we should be teaching him that it’s OK if he isn’t the same as everyone else.”

“Parents shouldn’t overprotect quiet children, but they should understand that these kids have a longer runway before they’re comfortable enough to take off and fly,” says Susan Cain, whose bestselling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, addresses Western culture’s tendency to undervalue introverts.

In her book, Cain says one-third of people are introverts—folks who’d prefer to listen rather than speak. But this personality type also comes with many other qualities—innovation, creativity and sensitivity—that have led people to make great contributions to society. (Famous introverts include Albert Einstein, J.K. Rowling and Dr. Seuss.)

In her writing on temperament and personality, Cain references award-winning science writer David Dobbs’ “Orchid Hypothesis.” It posits that while many children are like dandelions and are able to thrive in any environment, others are more like orchids that can wilt easily, but, in the right environment and with good parenting, can grow strong and magnificent.

Jenny O’Brien* followed that approach when raising her introverted daughter, Emma. It became clear that school was very stressful as soon as Emma started preschool.

“She was extremely reserved and wouldn’t talk to anyone,” says O’Brien. “It took her six months to speak to the teacher, and even then it was only a whisper.”

O’Brien and her husband elected to begin home-schooling in kindergarten, while encouraging Emma to pursue extracurricular activities in smaller group settings. As she got older and more confident, Emma started to broaden her experiences, and went on to attend a regular high school. Now, at 19, she has tons of friends, she has travelled overseas alone and recently completed her first year of university.

“Parents can help their children expand their boundaries while still respecting their nature by using concrete strategies to deal with stressful social situations,” Reist says. “For example, tell your son ahead of time that it’s alright if he brings a book to Grandma’s party, but when it’s time to sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ he has to come and join everyone.”

Nair also suggests planning ahead by coming up with goals—like being able to leave a parent’s side during a party—and a plan of action to achieve them.

Hill uses a lot of context-specific strategies to manage her kids’ shyness, like making sure they’re the first to arrive at gatherings. “When the room fills up, they’re already comfortable with their surroundings and not as likely to be hanging off of our legs.”

Most introverted children will learn to alter their personalities in specific social situations as a way to fit in—especially during adolescence, when peer relationships become increasingly important. Reist suggests encouraging a shy child to seek out role models and watch the way they interact with others. Parents are also well situated to be those role models. “Show your child how you interact with people in everyday life: at the grocery store or with family friends,” says Reist, “and have him strive to do the same.”

By adulthood, many introverts have mastered the ability to be what Cain refers to as a “pretend extrovert.” Reist says that when it comes to introverted kids, he often uses the concept of putting on a persona to help a quiet personality meet the demands of an overstimulating situation.

But both Reist and Nair agree that even with coping mechanisms in place, it’s important to remind an introverted child that it’s alright to return to the quiet, if needed.

“When these children come into our lives, we should take special care of them. They’re not disordered or deficient,” says Reist. “In fact, their sensitivity is a great gift.”

My son is now nine, and he’s come a long way. Though he’s still on the quiet side when it comes to certain social situations, he happily participates in extracurriculars and really enjoys being around other kids. I still worry sometimes, but I also see so many great qualities that are part of his personality. And because we give him the support he needs to be himself, we know he’ll be fine—maybe even great.

“Everyone shines, given the right lighting,” says Cain. “For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamp-lit desk.”

How shy is too shy?
Nair says for some children, shyness can mean more than having an introverted personality. If your child shows lack of progression through a particular fear, cries when tears don’t fit the situation, isolates herself regularly or has frequent emotional outbursts, she could be experiencing a social anxiety disorder and should be assessed by a professional.

Reading List
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, 
by Susan Cain
Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown
What Every Parent Should Know About School, by Michael Reist
Quiet Kids: Help Your Introverted Child Succeed in an Extroverted World, by Christine Fonseca

*Names have been changed

A version of this article appeared in our October 2013 issue with the headline “Shy away,” p. 64-6.

Read more:
Why introverted kids are awesome
My son is an introvert — and I love it
What to do when your child won’t speak

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