Welcome to Good Parenting, our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.
How to work with a shy child — Good Parenting
Dear Dr. Debbie,
Between our two children, the 9-year-old is very friendly and easy going, and the 7-year-old, “Violet,” is painfully shy. If we go to a sit-down restaurant she whispers her order to one of us rather than telling the waiter what she wants. Her brother, on the other hand, would talk to everyone in a restaurant, staff and customers alike, since he was two. If we make an issue of Violet’s shyness, she clams up. In her earlier years she would melt in a puddle of tears if anyone persisted in trying to get her to come out of her shell. What can we do to make her more comfortable around people?
Parents of Opposites
Don’t miss last week’s column on transitioning to the crib
Dear Parents of Opposites,
Violet’s shyness is probably an expression of genetics, which of course you can’t do anything about. Genes are permanent. Recent research into shyness has identified a specific variation on a gene known as RGS2 (Regulator of G protein signaling 2) in shy children, adolescents, and adults. One study found it among introverted adults who all were observed to be socially reserved as young children. If your daughter has this genotype, she experiences more stress than her brother in social situations, especially among larger crowds and unfamiliar people.
Accept that your “opposite” children experience social situations differently. For your son, a new face prompts him to make a connection and chatter away. For Violet, a new face triggers a protective response. She experiences more stimulation to the part of the brain that senses danger, resulting in her clamming up. To reduce the stimulation, she might look away from the source of the stress (the face) and it would only make things worse to force her to go against her instincts. Over time, you can help her develop predictable expectations and routines to get through future social encounters.
Help Violet prepare for potentially anxious social situations with rehearsal, discussion, and assured promises about how you will support her. For example, restaurant preparation can include playing restaurant at home. She may still enjoy pretend play – with you and maybe a regular playmate taking turns being the waiter and customer; or the family can have “restaurant at home” dinners with hand-written menus, an order pad, and a server (each of you takes a turn on different nights).
Give her several days’ notice, if you can, before she will be going to a real restaurant. Talk about everything you already know about the restaurant – location, décor, menu, etc. and be sure to highlight parts of the planned outing that she is likely to enjoy. Maybe plan her outfit with her and make a couple of possible menu choices (restaurants sometimes run out of items on the menu – adding stress for a shy person).
Likely she is most secure sitting next to a parent, or even between the both of you, so remind her that you will sit next to her during dinner. And that she will have parental accompaniment to the restroom (you can make this part of the routine, after ordering, for hand washing purposes). And that dinner out will be followed by going home (for her standard bedtime routine). Then be mindful of her stress signs during dinner and try to steer the conversation to topics she enjoys, or allow her the peace of mind to know that she does not have to join in the conversation. If you work hard to make dining out a relaxing experience for her, soon she will believe that it will be. And you will find that it is for you, too.
The more you make a routine out of going to a restaurant, the more comfortable she will be. Familiarity will apply to other social situations, too. Use similar rehearsals, discussions, and assurances for: birthday parties, the movie theater, a large outdoor event, visiting a health professional, spending the night at a friend’s house, etc.
By the way, introverts have many career choices. Lots of occupations require completely routine interactions with people or very limited interactions: court reporting, medical records, accounting, computer programming, writer, or research scientist, to name a few. Interestingly many famous entertainers have described themselves as shy, claiming a role and a script, or carefully choreographed dance steps, or well-rehearsed song lyrics, make it much easier to know how to behave around other people.
Overcoming shyness may not so much be the goal as accepting it.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com