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It’s easy to spot the shy kid in a crowd. She hangs back warily, looking at everybody cautiously, careful about not drawing the slightest attention to herself, and ultimately retiring to the corner couch of the room. The point is, being shy is painful for this exact reason: it is easily identifiable. Then people proceed to label the reserved kid as ‘shy’, ‘clingy’, ‘awkward’; not only adults but even other children who begin to feel the invisible barrier between them. This can lead to multiple challenges, the key among them being the loss of confidence in the child.
The fact of the matter here is that shyness is a common enough trait which exhibits itself in varying degrees. In most cases there is little to panic and some basic interventions at home and school should address the issue. It is only in rare cases when the child absolutely refuses to talk to or make eye contact with people, and also dismisses your attempts at helping her mingle that might warrant seeking professional help. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you interact with your child who is not as outgoing or social:
Avoid Labelling Your Child as Shy
Your friend has dropped in to see your son. You take him up to her, who smiles genially and says ‘hi’. This is greeted by a loud silence on your son’s part. You start the introduction all over again, but in vain. You ask, cajole, pressure your son to respond with a ‘Hi’ but when nothing works you say apologetically, “He’s just shy. Give him some time and he will open up if he wants to.” This is a familiar scene for many parents. But if we look at it from the child’s point of view, it makes him shrink further away from people thus defeating your purpose altogether. In such situations it is critical to not label the child as shy and make the situation uncomfortable for your child. Allow him the space and time to engage on his own terms.
Give Your Child Some Time
Occasionally, go on outings with your child and include only the people she is comfortable with. Once she feels at home with her people in an unfamiliar setting, it will be easier for her to be acquainted with strangers. Introducing one new person in a group of ten friends will ease her into a sense of safety. If you take care not to add a whole lot of strangers to the mix at a time, it shouldn’t be difficult for the child to get along with everybody at a reasonable level of comfort.
We should not have unrealistic expectations from our children. Hee cannot be asked to, say, dash into a pool of strangers and start chattering straight away. Coach him a little ahead of time, gently chit-chatting about the people he’s about to meet. For example, tell him that the shopkeeper is a friendly Uncle whom he should thank after he has handed him the candies.
The other trick to have up one’s sleeves is, tell your daughter an interesting nugget of information about the person she’ll shortly meet. “You know, Mrs Sharma has a bird that talks. This will make the interaction a little more comfortable and less threatening for your child.
Encourage Your Child's Efforts to engage
Some children exhibit Selective Mutism which is a condition in which children are very talkative with close friends and family but stop talking altogether in the presence of new people. In such situations it is helpful to have a parent or a trusted adult along with the child in social settings. This serves as a big safety net for the child and helps build confidence of speaking up over a period of time.
It is important to acknowledge the child when he makes an effort to engage with other people. You could say ‘I know you did not want to say Hi but I’m glad that you sat with us and did not cling’ Did you like meeting Sharma Aunty?’
Have Your Child Rehearse Social and Conversational Skills
Children labelled as shy spend a good amount of time worrying or thinking about it and it might be a good idea to bring the discussion out into the open. Depending on the age of the child you might want to talk to her about what worries her most. Is it just the unsettling feeling of meeting someone new, or is it the inability to initiate a conversation or decide how to respond to a question? You might consider practicing eye contact, positioning of hands, smile, and small phrases like “Thank you”, “My name is Ahaana”, “Hello”. Take it one step at a time.
These ideas aren’t a magic wand for your child to wave around. The ultimate remedy is time and your supportive engagements. Half the adult population admits that they are shy; a much higher percentage agrees that they were shy as children. To alleviate you anxiety as a parent, I would like to end with the story of a girl who was admittedly ‘painfully shy’ and would only talk to teachers and parents, running away from classmates. She has grown up to be one of the world’s most powerful people. We now know her as Marissa Mayer -the CEO of Yahoo, and the person who used to be responsible for Google Search and Google Maps for over a decade.