Sunday, October 10, 2010

Weekly Column: Shyness Isn't A Disease To Be Cured

We walked into the party, and it felt like I’d entered this exact situation a hundred times before.

On my hip was a little girl, clinging to me for dear life. She would barely look around at the sea of smiling faces; the noise of their enthusiasm was enough to frighten her into hiding. She buried her head in my neck and clamped her arms and legs around my torso. She wouldn’t be getting down any time soon.

This little girl – my second – is shy. She’s just as rambunctious and wild in private as the most high-spirited toddler, but put her in an overwhelming social setting and she retreats into silence.

At least for a good chunk of time, until she has time to thaw out, she will venture no further from her daddy or myself than one of our thighs.

But the key statement there is until she has time to thaw out. Given time, she adapts to the noise of strangers or family members. Given time, she feels comfortable exploring alone or joining in with the big kids. Given time, she will speak to and hug relatives or friends.

Given time.

Which I am completely content to give her.

I’ve heard conflicting advice on how to deal with a child’s shy behavior. Ranging from why it’s best to simply push them quickly into new situations so they’ll learn to handle their own feelings, to why they shouldn’t be treated any differently than other, more secure children. But one thread of commonality pulls all of that advice together: they all seem to hint that being shy is a bad thing. Something to be cured.

But as a formerly shy child, I disagree.

Shyness is a normal, natural response to situations or people that – justifiably or not – frighten a child. Therefore, I don’t think shyness itself is something to be treated or cured. Rather, the ways we help our children feel comfortable and confident should be tailored to their needs, no matter their inherent personalities. Just as you would try to temper your brave child’s enthusiasm with cautions for safety, you should also temper your shy child’s fear with support and encouragement.

I believe that a shy child will only be made more shy and insecure by being tossed helplessly into the deep end. Without the knowledge that their security – their parent – is close by, shy kids are even less likely to venture out in the first place.

So I let my shy daughter cling to me.

I let her relax her grip long enough to take a peek at the fun going on around her, and I encourage her to sit on my lap while she watches. I hold her hand as she decides – after a very long time – that she’d like to stand on the floor. I pick her back up when she’s frightened by the advances of a playful adult. I tell her I’ll be right here, if she’d like to watch the others play. I remain true to my word: I don’t leave. She runs back to me a few times, more and more comfortable with the surroundings. Finally, she plays.

I’ll give her all the time she needs to feel secure, knowing that I am her first security. I am her shelter and the beginning of her confidence.

I know this because I’ve watched it happen with her older sister. My big girl is the reason I felt like I’d walked into the same party a hundred times, with her clinging to me for hours.

And now, she runs away happily. Confidently.

[Online Version.]


  1. Well said! My two are interesting mixtures of shy and brave, calm and fearful. I shudder at all the advice I have been given to cure the shyness (and the seemingly dangerous brave behavior). The tricky part of parenting is giving you kids the support, guidance and freedom they need in that moment.

  2. I completely agree, my oldest tends to be shy and quiet in social situations, although as he gets older his confidence has definitely increased.
    I do not push him to be or act in ways that are contrary to his personality. I firmly believe in giving children the space and acceptance to be who they are.
    I will model behaviors for him though, just to show him what his options might be.

  3. i love the tenderness here and your desire to let your child to be who she is without pushing her to be someone else.

    she is blessed to have you in her court!

  4. Agree, agree, agree! You said it exactly right!

  5. Love this, and oh how I needed it. Eli and Noah are both extremely shy, and I have the hardest time when people advise me to plunk 'em down and walk away... it violates all my natural maternal instincts. You give such clear, logical reasoning for why shyness is not something to be cured; I'll be carrying it around confidently while my littles work through it.


Hmm...And how did that make you FEEL?