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Is my kid’s shyness and social anxiety such a bad thing?

Like a lot of babies, when my daughter Roxie was still in her first year she had a certain reticence around strangers. At the time, we chalked it up to separation anxiety otherwise known as “please don’t pass me to Granny or Grandpa or I’ll scream my head off.”

We smiled. We made excuses. But it persisted.

Now, at three and a half, Roxie is certainly stimulated by novel experiences, people and situations. But put her in a peer group setting like, say, preschool circle time, and she goes all Chauncey Gardiner – more content to watch than join in.

Or, so it would seem.

As many of her fellow preschoolers merrily belt out “Little Bunny Foo Foo” animated with hand movements, Roxie, who knows all the words and gestures (and performs them with relish at home in front of the mirror), remains silent, hands in her lap. In a free art class offered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, other kids streak by her through the halls of the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the ancient New World on the hunt for the fon elephant from the Republic of Benin. Instead, Roxie lags behind with me and the other parents and caregivers required to be there. It’s not that she doesn’t know where the elephant is (she does) or even that she doesn’t enjoy the hunt (she says “it’s fun”).

But rather than let go and join the others, or even let on she’s enjoying it, she walks quietly until she reaches the spot where the bright silver statue stands encased in glass, then remains outside the throng of kids and merely points. There, she says in a whisper.

Is she shy? Slow to warm up? Highly sensitive with a dread of social evaluation? What leads her to hold back in these situations? Is it genetic, environmental? A temporary stage of development? A life-long condition?

In our Got Talent culture we have come to expect even our youngest children to be high achievers – feisty swimmers, masterful drawers, gregarious preschool socialites. A shy or reticent temperament can dampen our hopes and evokes our own peculiar brand of parental angst. But is it that our child may miss out on some extroverts-only experiences that worries us or is something more primal, more prideful at work? The fear, perhaps, that our child will never shine?

According to a recent major study, 42 percent of American children exhibit shyness and the percentage only increases with age. “Thirty or forty years ago, being shy didn’t used to be as negatively stereotyped as it is today,” said Lynne Henderson, a former faculty member at Stanford University and director of the Shyness Institute.

In recent years, psychologists have battled as to whether or not shyness is genetic, a reaction to environment, or some combination. Jerome Kagan, a prominent Harvard research psychologist, was the first to identify traits in infancy that predict shyness. He believes temperament is destiny, or at least, shyness is a priori, a point he set out to prove when he began a major longitudinal study in 1986, researching 500 sixteen-week olds. Tracking data including how the babies reacted when given a new toy, he and colleagues determined that the most highly reactive sixteen-week olds, those with the most visible signs of distress and alarm when handed a new toy, proved to be the shyest children when they were interviewed as eleven-year-olds.

But, even if a child is hardwired to be highly sensitive or shy, many experts argue, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a behavioral marker for life on the sidelines.

“Many children will outgrow their strong reticence and reactions,” said Dr. Henderson of the Shyness Institute. “About 93 percent of shy children never become problematically shy.”

But, early detection of social awkwardness and intervention can make a significant difference later on, she said.

“I’ve had a lot of parents who say they wished they’d done something sooner,” said Nicole Shiloff, a clinical psychologist who specializes in adolescent shyness and social anxiety at the Shyness Clinic in Los Altos, Calif. “Giving a child a way to cope with their shyness or anxiety even really early on just better equips them for later.”

A slew of books and online sites address shyness in children, and help parents understand where their child may fall in the spectrum of shy behavior. From a child with social anxiety who may experience profound psychological and physical reactions in a social situation to a child with one or two best friends who may not be in the social fray among peers, but doesn’t mind it. Somewhere in the middle are the children who are slow-to-warm up, who may hesitate to join a social situation and take anywhere from two minutes, two weeks, two months or more to participate.

“I find that parents who have their own shyness or anxiety issues may over-identify with a shy child, and internalize that child’s anxiety rather than help them develop mechanisms to cope with it,” said Dr. Shiloff. There are also the parents who may be just the opposite. “They may be really extroverted and have some difficulty understanding a child who’s tempermentally different,” she said. Helpful books and websites for an explanation of shy and shy-like behaviors:

The Encyclopedia of Mental Health – Shyness

The Center for Effective Parenting’s Shyness page.

Nuturing the Shy Child by Barbara G. Markway PHd. and Gregory P. Markway PHd., (Thomas Dunne Books, 2004)

The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child: Helping Your Child Thrive in an Extroverted World by Marti Olsen Laney Psy.D., (Workman Publishing Company,

2005)

Which, in fact, is the case for Roxie and me.

The good news is there are many practical and easy suggestions of strategies parents, teachers and other caregivers can use not only to soothe a young bashful child, but also empower him or her. Included are tactics borrowed from cognitive behavior therapy that begin to teach even the youngest children how to identify and monitor thoughts, assumptions, beliefs and behaviors that relate to their shyness. “With young children we tend to work on strategies for the parents,” said Dr. Shiloff. “We teach parents for example, the cognitive behavior model of thinking aloud with a shy child to help alleviate some of the stress associated with an event.”

For example, she suggested I could talk to Roxie before an activity to prepare her for some of the things that she may be asked to do, like sing along with the group, raise her hand or say her name aloud. Role-playing too can help to build a child’s confidence. “Especially with young children who look to their parents for social cues, it’s important to model the kind of pro-social behavior you’re expecting from your child,” said Dr. Shiloff. “And, we recommend getting the teacher involved, maybe even setting up a reward system to reinforce positive social behavior.”

Although there is debate among experts over what constitutes social anxiety versus shyness, one thing all the experts agree on is not to label a child as “shy,” which only serves to make a child more self-conscious and heighten his or her sense of discomfort.

Recently, Robert Coplan, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa and colleagues, have been at work designing a program they hope can be implemented in schools and other community activities that will challenge and encourage chronically shy preschoolers to become more active participants.

Our goal here is not to change your child, Dr. Coplan wrote of his program in a recent email. “Our goal is to help children develop the necessary coping strategies so that their shyness does not prevent them from doing things in their life that they want to do,” he said.

Of course, experts also caution that we must be careful not to pathologize this temperament. After all, Dr. Henderson from the Shyness Institute explained, shyness is a blend of fear and interest.

“To have a shy reaction is a wired response that helps us pause to identify friends and collaborators from predators before we enter the fray,” she said. “So shyness can also be a positive attribute,” she added.

Dropping Roxie off at preschool one recent morning after a chat about some of the kids she was looking forward to seeing, I witnessed this primitive response in action. The children’s day was getting started with a dance party and when we arrived, a little girl (whom Roxie had mentioned) broke from the group of kids and teachers and bounded up to us. “She’s my best friend,” the girl informed me as she enveloped Roxie in a bear hug. She grabbed Roxie’s hand and began to drag her toward the preschool mosh pit. I saw Roxie’s moment of hesitation and I found myself holding my breath, beaming a large smile of encouragement. But, without so much as a backward glance, Roxie stepped to the edge of the circle and then into the group with her friend, and cautiously, a little awkwardly, began to dance.

This piece was originally published on November 9, 2009

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