QUESTION: My daughter is 10 years old and I am concerned about her. She is extremely shy to the point where she nearly becomes paralysed. She is very sensitive and emotional, thinks everyone is looking and talking about her and will not engage in school sports because she is afraid of being embarrassed. She allows herself to be bullied and is drawn to the weakest and youngest person in her class. She is an extremely kind and gentle girl and would never hurt anyone deliberately. I feel she is being left behind by all her friends because they can’t deal with her shyness and fear, and she also knows this. I have read lots of books on raising children but I do not understand this. I am afraid I am doing the wrong thing and making it worse. I want to know if I should let this take its course or is there something extra I could do to help her? She is the eldest of three – she has two brothers and she has no problem with them. We are a very loving family, we shower her with affection and praise all the time, but I feel she is heading for a life of depression if I don’t tackle the problem now.
Many children present as shy or can be anxious in certain social situations and this is a relatively normal response, especially for young children. In fact, there are some positives to being initially reserved in new social situations, in that it makes children be a little bit cautious and/or thoughtful about how they act socially.
Sometimes it can be more helpful than the opposite trait of being over-forward or impulsive socially, which can get children into all sorts of trouble. Of course, shyness or social anxiety can become a problem when it is severe and seriously affects the child’s ability to relate to other people or to get on with their life – and they may need support in these situations
As a clinician, I am often reluctant to use the term shy as it can have a number of negative connotations and it can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, making the child believe that their feelings of anxiety in social situations are internal qualities that they can’t do anything about.
In addition, drawing attention to shyness, especially in public, can make the problem worse. For example, if you say, “Come on now, don’t be shy”, this can make a child all the more self-conscious and cause them to pull back even more. Or if you sit down and have a conversation with a child about why they are shy, this can make them feel awkward or wonder what is “wrong” with them.
What might be a better approach is to tackle the problems that arise in social situations one by one. For example, you say your daughter “allows herself to be bullied” in school. This could mean that she is being excluded and this is something you should raise with the teacher, who has a responsibility to ensure each child is getting on well socially in the classroom.
Equally, the fact that she is “being left behind by friends” could mean a mismatch with her friendship group or that there are cliques in the classroom. Once again, the teacher might be able to help her with this and even identify other potential companions or groups where your daughter would better fit in.
Being shy is a form of self-consciousness where you are hyper-sensitive to other people’s perception of you. You can help your daughter by making sure she is with people she is comfortable with and by choosing activities that she loves so much that she gets caught up in the task and “loses herself” in the activity. You might need to explore lots of different extra-curricular activities to find ones where she has a natural talent, or special interest or where she feels connected with the other children who are participating.
Supportive groups such as the girl guides or scouts or other groups where your daughter might feel comfortable can really help. You mention that she is not engaging in sports – you need to first consider whether she is really interested in these sports, or whether there are alternate sports or activities which would fit better with her.
If anxiety is holding her back in certain situations, you can coach and support her to manage this. For example, if she is approaching a social situation that she is anxious about, you could talk through it and help her identify strategies to manage it, for example arriving there with someone she knows, thinking of who she could talk to first, and even planning some small talk or conversational openers to get the chat going.
Or if she really wants to participate in a sport in school, you could help manage her fear by learning relaxation strategies or getting her to focus on a small goal (such as achieving the first step in the game).
There are some good children’s books that focus on learning these social skills that you might read together such as What to Do When You Worry Too Much by Dawn Huebner as well as books for parents such as Nurturing the Shy Child by Barbara Markway.
You say she feels happy at home with her brothers and with you as her parents and that she is a very loved child – this is great as it will provide her with a secure base from which she can tackle the world. I think you are right to continue to praise her and, in particular, I think it is important to emphasise the positive qualities in her personality (which you are doing already) such as her thoughtfulness, gentleness or kindness (that may be the flip side of her shyness).
I hear that you are worried about the future, but be careful about communicating these worries to your daughter as this may increase her anxiety. It might be useful for you to consult a mental health professional to talk through your concerns and to explore what other options there are for your daughter.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, February 2011. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ Family every Tuesday.
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