I am entitling this the “shy” child, although one of my sons who prompted me to write this is perhaps not the typical “shy” child as much as the cautious or worried one. I have been studying this behavior a lot recently and, now that he is turning six, looking for appropriate ways to help him conquer fear and anxiety, especially socially. He has basically had this problem since he was little.
Looking back, I can see that he was even a “shy” baby. He was small and weak, clingy but happy. He was easy—didn’t cry a lot, napped all the time, yet sometimes wouldn’t hang onto a feeding enough to get the full amount. He gave up easily, grew up behind his physical milestones, fearful of trying to walk, and screaming his head off when I walked away from him, starting at about 8months old and ending I’m not sure when. Probably at 16 months when he finally tried walking, and found out he could do it perfectly by then. Toilet training was a nightmare, separation anxiety was terrible, and he sucked his thumb for a long time. (He still does, only at night though). We found out he had a barrage of sensory and motor issues, got him occupational therapy for that, and would stutter when he didn’t get enough sensory input that day. He generally liked people though, he was exceptionally bright and talkative at an early age, and taught himself to read. I never had any real concerns.
This may or may not describe your child, but the point is that the shyness and fearfulness began at an early age and it has been tricky to help him grow out of it. We have only just gotten to the place where he was ok enough to do kiddie gymnastics at the YMCA. He breaks down and cries so easily that most classes are a nightmare. And most teachers don’t have enough patience! Let’s face it… I don’t always. I have a unique empathy for what he’s going through, as his mother, but sometimes I can’t handle an avid crier. I just can’t understand why games are not fun, competitions are so threatening, and most stuff he won’t even try. And I don’t mean like trying out for the soccer team. I mean, like he won’t try to throw a nerf ball through the Little Steps basketball hoop. Or use a friend’s kiddie tramp in the yard. Little things, you know?
Well, now that he’s older (6yrs) and so precocious, I have been able to have some good conversations about it with him. And I’ve been reading up on the subject. And here are some things I have learned, which might help you deal with your clingy and fearful one. (I can tell this is going to be a long post, sorry!)
1. Shyness is not a crisis. Don’t panic! (Maybe I should have said, “shyness isn’t autism” =) Even though it seems that everything for little kids in America is geared towards sanguine, extroverted children, eventually the more reserved ones will fit in. For kids who are wary of excitement, the world can be a tough place. As parents who want to see our kids happy so much, we just have to accept this. There are melancholy types, and we may have one. My second son is a stereotypical Eeyore, Gloomy Gus, or whatever and it has been a little difficult for me to accept this. Yet I see the wonderful things God has placed within him which are going to make him successful when he’s older. I see his empathy, thoughtfulness, gentleness, carefulness, and discernment. He is analytical, scientific, extremely emotionally aware, and will probably end up in a counselor, teacher, therapist, doctor, or otherwise helpful role when he’s an adult. I don’t want to squelch this even though I get frustrated that he won’t join in the Uno game or kiddie pool =)
2. Share the positive things with the child. Whereas my other three kids are blissfully unaware of their strengths and weaknesses, and charmingly prideful about everything, my shy child is painfully self-conscious. This makes it all the more important to start teaching shy children about themselves. They are ready to hear it, actually, since they are already thinking about it. And if I don’t interrupt the “bad tape” that my son is playing inside his own head (“I can’t do this. I’m too short. I’m not good enough…”) then it will take over. I have to replace that bad tape with a “good tape.” So I do this by sharing those good things I see… how neat it will be to see what he’s going to do when he grows up. Even at 5yrs old, he was thinking about it and whether we have an accurate vision is not the point as much as it is that there is a purpose for his personality. (Always approve of any idea they have, about what they want to be when they grow up, even if it is ridiculous or a bad fit.) Subconsciously, I want to shift my child’s perception of himself from “my problems are my identity” to “I’m destined for great things, so I can overcome the challenges.” Sort of like talking to the average 13 yr old who feels inadequate!
One way to help a little child who’s insecure is to draw a picture of a big bucket and put their name on it. Then talk about what good things go in that bucket, like “kind” or “thinker” etc. You can list these things and draw arrows into the bucket, and then put the picture somewhere they will see it a lot, like on the frig, or over a desk. For non-readers, draw a small picture next to each word, like a heart next to “kind” or a thinking face next to “thinker.” They will soon come to know these words as they see it daily, and you can bring it out when you have your talks.
3. Teach positive thinking. This is kind of the same as #2 except more practical. I actually teach my son to narrate what he’s doing, sometimes, instead of playing his “bad tape.” The ol’ standby of “I think I can, I think I can” is ok, but my son is such a realist that “I’m putting this lace around this one, and then I’m pulling through” is better for him. It replaces “I can’t do this, It’s too hard” while he’s practicing tying his shoes.
Also related to this is watching your language. Shy is not a bad word, nor is sensitive, and the reserved child needs a vocabulary to talk about the issue as they grow. Yet the shy child already feels like everything they do is under a microscope. They feel that the problems they have are huge, but their strengths are insignificant. If you’re careful how you speak, it can reverse this kind of thinking. Obviously try not to scold or criticize, but more practically, try to give instruction instead of correction whenever possible. And when appropriate, sandwich the instruction within two loving statements like, “I know you’re trying really hard to do that right, which is great. I think you have to hold the bow in one hand while you loop with the other. Then it will be easier.” Pretending like everything is NO BIG DEAL is key.
4. One-on-One time is huge. The shy child tends to appreciate the one-on-one time the most. All kids need it, but the more tender or reserved child often doesn’t get it because they aren’t around as much, or are gentler, or whatever. So make time and go get them if they won’t acknowledge the need to come to you. And beware of leaving the child who plays alone in the corner, alone. They probably don’t want to bother people, or have conflict, but direct eye contact and engagement goes a long way in warding off problems. In particular, it keeps them from developing passive aggressive behavior later on, when they realize they need things but don’t know how to communicate or get what they need the right way. Connect, connect.
One of the best ways to do this is create a personal ritual. It can become very valuable to them, even if it’s just a bedtime story, or a weekly Saturday breakfast out, or whatever. Even a non-demanding two year old is able to pick up on a ritual like this, and enjoy munching a bagel with you at Panera. It tells them “I love you, and I like being with you.” This will counter that negative tape they play and make them happier inside.
5. Reward and Celebrate courage. The shy child is reluctant to engage social activities often because they have performance anxiety. They may not know what to say, or to do, and so they are afraid of getting in the game. And they may feel pressure to get things right the first time, do a good job, etc. Knowing what “should” happen or what going to kindergarten “should” feel like causes them great cognitive dissonance as things “actually” happen or they experience what they “actually” feel. Then they feel guilty or ashamed. It is a very adult-like trap, really. It takes some undoing.
Part of the undoing is to obviously teach as many skills as possible. Shy children in particular need to learn eye contact, hand shaking, phone skills, manners, and what to say when they don’t understand or don’t know. Many cannot turn off the fear or waterworks once they start, and they shouldn’t feel ashamed for it or convinced out of it until they’re ready. Time-outs are often helpful. They also need to practice with non-threatening people or contexts (even stuffed animals!) if actual performance is involved. But once teaching and practice are done, then the key to reward and celebrate when they step out. For another child, starting a conversation is not worthy of praise, but for the shy child, it is. Speaking up, telling someone what they need, asking for help, trying something new, going to a party, singing in circle time at nursery school, offering help, etc…. all these things should be taught and then heavily rewarded no matter what the results are. I’m not against giving shy kids candy for rewards. It is a very tangible and non-consuming way to tell a 4yr old, “Great job. I’m happy with your effort.” Now with my shy child, giving him the incentive of an M&M to do something is different… it doesn’t work because then he feels all this pressure to perform to get that M&M. This actually shuts him down and makes him cry. So do negative consequences being threatened, obviously. But an incentive is different from a reward. His face does light up when I catch something good and reward him for it, probably because there was no pressure or expectation involved. Find a balance, but reward based on the effort not the outcome.
6. Get sensory and motor issues checked out. For my son, some occupational therapy (and now kiddie gym) has gone a long way in helping him deal with his anxiety. Not every shy child has sensory issues, but probably more do than we know. When a child actually feels everything too loud, too fast, too bright, etc., the world is an overstimulating and scary place. Getting some occupational or physical therapy can raise their tolerance levels, as well as give them non-threatening one on one attention in the areas they need strength. When I first sought testing for my son (then just 3yrs), everyone was so worried because of his fears and crying during the exams. They thought he was depressed, had generalized anxiety disorder, and needed a neuropsychological exam. I feared that only medication was down that path, so I persisted in my quest to take the more physical route. I truly believed strength and self-confidence was at the root of the anxiety, so I insisted we try that first. What do you know, it worked! So if your child is afraid of parties, gyms, playgrounds, malls, etc, it is definitely worth checking this out. My son not only hears the lowest sounds on the hearing machine, and sense all touches and smells more than anyone else, but he has bad visual discrimination skills so he can’t spot things well. He can’t see me in a crowd, see Daddy coming back to the car, sense where he is when he turns a corner in the library, or get to the trash can and back in a restaurant without getting confused. This of course contributes to startling and anxiety but is, thankfully, one of the easiest things to work on at home through worksheets, I Spy/Where’s Waldo, puzzles, and other visual tracking activities (try “Slow and Steady, Get Me Ready” by J. Oberlander for preschooler ideas.) In my opinion, if there are sensory/motor issues behind social anxiety, you’ll never get the shyness to abate just by tackling them psychologically. They need skills and desensitization too.