Q & A’s on Parenting Shy Children

First off, I’ve read that we never call our children “shy” so that they can hear. Why is this so important?

Most shy children are terribly uncomfortable being under a microscope or in the spotlight.  They do not like having their pictures taken, being observed, or feeling categorically labeled.  If you call your child "shy", the risk is that they may hear it as being flawed or deficient in some way.  Best to treat them with respect and without excuses by labeling.

Some children have such a hard time saying good-bye to their parents (i.e. school drop-off) that the parents don’t want to sign them up for extra-curricular activities. It seems as if this doesn’t help anyone—what should be done in this case?

If you have a child who displays separation anxiety with great stress at times of saying goodbye to you it is best not to push or force signing them up for extra-curricular activities.  The only place that is an attendance must is school.  Birthday parties for classmates and play dates come next.  Extra-curricular activities are optional and should not be enforced.  First, deal with the issues that are keeping your child stuck.  Separation anxiety is never one-sided.  This means it is not only in your child but also in you.  You need to examine your own feelings that get tripped off when your child struggles, tugs on you, and demands you.  Many parents collapse into tears and can't bear their child's pain.  Others feel frustrated and even angry expecting their youngster to "get over it".  This is a complicated phenomenon.  It often helps to get a clean slate professional opinion.  Your pediatrician or school director can offer a good referral.

A friend was telling me that her child melted down when she was dropping him off at camp. He was screaming and crying, causing her other child to cry as well. The counselors said to leave him, so she did, though was wondering if that was the best thing to do. Was it?

In simple language, no.  There is controversy about how to deal with a crying child at drop-off time.  The separation process is extremely delicate.  To rip the mother away abruptly is not helpful.  It is counter-productive.  Most summer camp counselors are not psychologically trained or sophisticated.  I would have suggested that Mom stay with her crying child until he settles down.  Then, Mom should sit off in the background without engaging with her child.  She should sit securely based for him to come and go to when he needs her assurance.  After a day or two, Mom can stay 5-10 minutes and then tell her child she is going to get coffee at the nearby Starbuck's (previously shown to child so he knows where to envision Mom).  She should tell him if he needs her the counselors will call and she will come to stay with him.  Separation should be handled gradually, gently, and following the individual child's needs and readiness.

As my child gets older, he clams up, sticks to my side, when we enter big group gatherings, such as a birthday party. What words of encouragement can I give him to go break free and go explore?

This is very interesting.  Most children relax and de-constrict as they get older.  You did not mention your child's age.  If your child is a toddler this makes perfect sense.  Some children become overwhelmed by the intense volume, behavioral expectations, and crowd at a birthday party.  It helps your child if you prepare her for what the kids will do - step-by-step.  "First we'll do this, then the children will . . . " and so on.

I’ve read that if your child is shy, to stick to groups of 1 – 2 and then as they open up, move on to larger ones. This can be impossible with birthday party invitations, preschool, music class, etc. Should a parent avoid these gatherings?

If your child is shy play dates work best if you stick to 1 on 1.  Two is a triangular group and can leave your shy child feeling left out.  The real key here is choosing the right temperamental fit in the other child's personality.  If your child is shy invite an easy-going gentle child for a play date.  Your child could feel overwhelmed by an extraverted outgoing personality.  You cannot control how many children are invited to a birthday party.  Do NOT avoid these gatherings.  But, have a fully supportive plan in place before you go.  For instance, if your child feels more secure with you nearby, sit near him but as far away as he can comfortably tolerate.  You want to be supportive without fostering his dependence on you.  If your child refuses to participate in games, that's okay.  Let her watch on the sidelines with you at her side.  She is there but in her comfort zone.  Let her know that her friends are very happy she is with them to celebrate.

A few people wrote in with the same sort of question—one reader asked, “I always wonder if it is appropriate to ask or "force" a child to talk to adults when clearly the child is uncomfortable. I see a lot of parents do it but it seems hard on the kiddo.”

You are right-on.  It is hard on the kid when a parent pushes or "forces" the child to talk.  Absolutely stay away from force.  This will only shine a spotlight on your child's struggle and make her go further underground.  If she is angry with you for forcing her to speak (anger is at the root of a child's withholding speech), she will only become more constricted and silent.  There is a disorder called Selective Mutism.  It begins with a shy introverted temperament and anxiety about being the focus of attention.  When the child feels forced to perform or achieve it becomes an issue of control.  The child withholds speech as a means of "getting back" at the intrusive parent who forced them.  Support your child to allow her to speak on her own terms at her own comfort level.

While another one said, “How should you respond when someone tries to engage your child and they look away or do not reply because they are shy?  Like when I say – “Tommy can you say hi to.... and Tommy just turns away and says nothing. Am I making Tommy feel bad by putting him in this situation or how should I encourage him?” What are your thoughts?

This is a great question illustrating a common scenario.  The adult waiting for Tommy to say hi is likely going to think Tommy is disrespectful or rude.  Or, worse yet, you have not done a good job of teaching your child appropriate social skills.  However, you and I know that is not the case.  The issue is Tommy's comfort level with other people.  Because you are a caring, good mom you value Tommy's feelings more than you care about what outsiders think.  It's okay for you to say "Tommy, would you like to  say hi to...."  If Tommy turns away and says nothing, you can say, "Tommy is working on saying hello to strangers and new friends.  Today I'm going to say hi to you for both of us.  One day soon Tommy will be able to say hello to you himself."  In other words, you are addressing the awkward moment and diffusing it by narrating what is going on and supportively saying Tommy will soon be up for it himself.

How does a parent know when shyness is actually a problem or condition for the child? Are there signs to watch for?

Everything falls on a continuum or spectrum.  For example, I am an extravert but I feel shy at a party where I don't know anyone.  Shyness becomes a problem when you hear from your child's teacher that your child is consistently silent in class.  I have worked with a number of children, more often girls than boys but not exclusively a female problem, who have never uttered a single word to their teachers.  I treated a 5 year-old girl who never went to the bathroom at school because she was required in kindergarten to raise her hand and ask permission.  She refused.  She did not answer the teacher when asked questions.  These are warning signs that consultation with a professional is needed.  Another warning sign is if your child chooses another child to be her voice.  This is exemplified by your shy child choosing one specific child who is the only one she will speak to.  If the teacher asks your youngster a question, she answers by telling the chosen child instead of speaking directly to the teacher.

We do a lot of role playing at home before we are going to a family event where I know he is going to feel uncomfortable.  Is that a good strategy or am I just making him feel more anxious?

I would guess role playing is making him feel more anxious.  The reason is that role-playing is taking a behavior modification approach when I think the anxiety is deeper rooted.  One that can't be fixed with a quick strategy.  Your child needs to feel accepted as he is, flaws and all.  Then, and only then can he emerge out of his safe cocoon and evolve into a freer more comfortable state.  Each child is uniquely individual.  Embrace him as he is.  He will flourish if he doesn't feel you are trying to change him into someone else.


Frances Walfish, Psy.D., MFT, is a leading child and family therapist in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. She is a consultant for Parenting Teens Resource Network, Parents magazine, Little Soul Productions, Los Angeles City Crisis Intervention Counselors, Momlogic.com and chairs the Governing Board of the Early Childhood Parenting Center, founded at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. She has also authored the book, The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child. More information on Dr. Fran can be found online at DrFranWalfish.com.

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