Family Focus

Drawing Out the Withdrawn Child

Rather than shield shy children from potentially difficult social situations, parents, with thought and care, can provide opportunities for them to conquer their fears. Photo by Bradley Slade.

Parents can create opportunities for their shy children to conquer their fears.

A shy Birthday Girl
Rather than shield shy children from potentially difficult social situations, parents, with thought and care, can provide opportunities for them to conquer their fears. Photo by Bradley Slade.

Four-year-old Toby’s birthday party is buzzing with activity. A dozen kids are having a blast kicking a couple of balls around, chasing balloons, and swarming around the treat-laden table. Little Katie, though, sits at the edge of the whirlwind, watching quietly. She seems reserved, calm, collected.

In reality, she’s anything but.

Inside, her heart is racing so fast she hardly dares stand up to join in the fun. Her hands are clammy, her mind is distracted, and her muscles are wound tight.

Katie is among the 15 percent of children hardwired to react with above-normal fear to most social situations. We call it shyness. Researchers call it “temperamental inhibition”—an inborn tendency to experience more fear than the average person. Without sensitive parenting, shy children can become so withdrawn that by grade school they become at risk for a host of problems, including loneliness, depression, and low academic achievement.

Larry J. Nelson, ’94, a BYU assistant professor of marriage, family, and human development, specializes in studying withdrawn children. Shyness is one form of withdrawal, and Nelson says recent studies clearly outline its physical markers. Shy children have more activity in the brain’s right frontal lobe, which controls negative emotions like fear. Their hearts beat faster than normal, even when resting, and their bodies release more of the hormones that people secrete when stressed or scared. “It’s as if they’re always on edge,” says Nelson. That tenseness goes up several notches when they encounter a new person or situation, and they tend to freeze up. “Non-shy people may think it’s ridiculous that shy people can’t talk or move in these situations, but the simple fact is that their bodies just will not let them.”

People who haven’t experienced shyness are sometimes insensitive toward those who are shy. “Don’t be so shy,” they’ll say, which is not helpful. “You’d never walk up to a really tall person and say, ‘Quit being so tall,’ or a short person and say, ‘Quit being so short,'” says Nelson.

He notes that not all behaviors that look like shyness are motivated by the fear that accompanies true shyness. Some “loner” children are happy to play by themselves. They don’t choose to be alone out of fear and don’t experience the social tension that shy children do. In addition, some behaviors that seem shy are positive, such as modesty, humility, and reserve.

Shy behavior begins as early as age 2, and parents’ instinctive reaction is often to protect their little boy or girl. But overprotection can actually worsen the symptoms of shyness. When 2-year-old Ethan clings to Mom’s legs and hides his face from a visitor, Mom might be tempted to shift her body so Ethan is completely shielded. When Dad notices 4-year-old Katie freezing up at Toby’s birthday party, his first instinct might be to sweep her up and out of the situation. Both actions send the message that the children can’t handle the situation. And they prevent them from having the experiences they need to build their social skills. In the end, overprotection reduces a child’s ability to cope with the world and interact with others in healthy ways.

The remedy isn’t to tough-love Ethan out from behind Mom’s skirt or to force Katie into playing at the birthday party. Rather, says Nelson, parents should provide gentle and carefully calibrated opportunities for shy children to overcome their fears and build their sense of self. For example, rather than send a shy child to a new friend’s house for the first time, parents might invite the new friend over to their house. With familiar surroundings, the child can more easily focus on relating to his new friend instead of worrying about encountering his friend’s parents, siblings, and pets.

Nelson has a shy child himself, and he watches for opportunities to help her overcome her fears in small steps. During a recent meal at Wendy’s, she didn’t want the toy that came with her meal and asked him to exchange it for her. He saw this as a chance to help her gain social experience. After making sure no one was in line at the counter and that the employee was friendly, he told his daughter that if she wanted the new toy she would have to ask for it herself. He practiced with her what she would say and gently encouraged her to take the plunge.

“It was a fairly easy task in a safe setting, and yet I knew it was a huge challenge for her. I remember her looking at me, then the toy, and then the counter, as if measuring if the new toy would be worth it. She then took a deep breath and headed for the counter. After she successfully accomplished the task, I congratulated her and then discussed with her how she felt about her effort and accomplishment.”

Another important strategy for parents of shy children is to be unconditionally loving. Parents are inclined to apologize to others for shy children’s behavior or act embarrassed by it. Some might inadvertently make disparaging remarks like “He can’t do that. He’s too shy.” Remembering that a truly shy child’s behavior is the result of biology, not choice, can help parents feel compassion toward their son or daughter.

A party Noise maker
Photo by Pattie Shumway.

With this foundation of parental love, shy children will better be able to weather the slings and darts of peers who might reject them. Shyness symptoms aren’t terribly problematic among very young children because their peers are focused mostly on themselves and don’t notice shy children’s behavior. But around age 4, children start to be aware of the kids who hang around the edge of activity, and they might ask questions like, “What’s wrong?” The shy child usually can’t respond, so the other children begin to see him as unfriendly and may reject him. He then begins to feel poorly about himself and becomes at risk for problems.

Nelson’s most recent study found that this poor self-perception shows up as early as age 4. “This is new information, that negative self-perception starts this young,” says Nelson. Before this study, it was believed that such perceptions typically began around age 8 or 9 or in the early teenage years.

A typical 4-year-old has an extremely positive self-perception, to the point of being unrealistic, says Nelson. So negative self-perception at this age is a strong sign that parents should be concerned. Ask six 4-year-olds who the fastest runner is, and they’ll all say, “Me!”—even the last one across the finish line. Nelson saw this principle in action on his daughter’s fifth birthday. “We were watching TV, and I pointed to a man and said, ‘Who’s that?’ She said, ‘That’s President Hinckley.’ I said, ‘Nice job, Jess. You’re right.’ She said, ‘Daddy, I’m 5 now. Five-year-olds know everything.’ That’s typical.” So if a 4-year-old responds to an invitation to play with something like, “Oh, I can’t, I’m shy,” parents should be alerted that their child’s shyness is a problem.

The good news for parents, Nelson says, is that they can have a strong influence on helping shyness in their children improve. In one study Nelson measured children’s withdrawn behavior at age 2 and again at age 4; he also measured parents’ behavior toward their shy child. He found that parents who thought their children were withdrawn at age 2 and responded by overprotecting had shy children by age 4. “But if you take the kids that score the same on that measurement and don’t have overprotective parenting, they’re not shy by age 4,” he says.

By being aware of and sensitive to a shy child’s needs, proactive parents can help strengthen their child’s social abilities, says Nelson. With practice, encouragement, and love, kids like Katie can learn to venture from the social fringes and join in the fun with their peers.

Sue Bergin is an adjunct faculty member in the BYU Honors Program and a writer and editor in Orem, Utah.

8 Ways to Help Your Shy Child

• Don’t label your child as shy. Children tend to live up to labels, both positive and negative.

• Resist the instinct to overprotect your child. Sheltering him sends the message that he isn’t competent and can’t handle himself.

• Be on the lookout for situations in which your child can interact socially without being overwhelmed. For example, invite friends to your house rather than push your child to go to other children’s homes.

• Foster a close friendship for your child. With at least one friend, she can more easily break into social circles and situations.

• Provide modestly challenging social exercises to give your child practice dealing with his fears.

• Talk to your child about times when you have felt shy and how you coped. You don’t need to draw a moral from your story. Just provide her with a model of overcoming an urge to withdraw.

• Provide unconditional love.

• Read books to your child about other shy children and how they overcame their fears. Knowing that other children experience what he does and triumph can relieve anxiety and provide a model of success.