Ditch perfectionism, plus 5 other ways to help your child overcome shyness

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A school girl walking alone.
A school girl walking alone.
Photo: Getty Images

It’s back-to-school season again, with thousands of children already attending class and make new friends. But not every child is excited – because, chances are, they suffer from extreme shyness.

They aren’t the only ones. Stars such as Beyoncé Knowles, Lady Gaga and Elton John all sing and perform, and have high public profiles, but they’re also very shy.

The dictionary defines shyness as being “not at ease with other people, bashful and cautious or unwilling” to relate to others. Yet, in the case of all three musicians, in spite of being shy, they haven’t let this trait hold them back from pursuing successful careers.

Various studies have been conducted on shyness, which is also known as Behavioural Inhibition (BI). In 2014, a study by US developmental psychologists Dr Koraly Pérez-Edgar and Dr Amanda E. Guyer, titled Behavioral Inhibition: Temperament or Prodrome? showed that characteristics of shyness could be seen as early as the first few months of a child’s life.

“Some infants display a heightened sensitivity to uncertainty in the world around them, leading them to fearfully withdraw from the social environment,” they wrote.

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“Extreme forms of this temperament, BI, are associated with increased risk for social anxiety disorder. BI is evident in early childhood and is marked by a persistent tendency to display fear of approaching new things, social shyness and with unfamiliar people.

“Learning to navigate the social world is a core developmental task. Children must create for themselves a stable understanding of who they are as individuals and their place within the specific social context that surrounds them.”

Yet the entertainers named above are good examples of people who’ve overcame shyness and have been able to create a stable understanding of who they are, as Pérez-Edgar and Guyer found.

Shyness didn’t take a toll on their personal happiness and professional success. It’s possible to help your child overcome extreme shyness so they can live more rewarding lives, just as others have done.

You as parents have a pivotal role to play in this. Psychologists suggest the following eight steps as a guideline:

1.Provide direction and assistance

Without taking over a child’s life and making all decisions for them, a parent can, and should, provide assistance from time to time. Sibongile, 32, a banker, helped her son overcome his reserved nature by first getting him to open up to his cousins. “My son would always hang on to me at family gatherings and wouldn’t even want to play with his cousins – that’s how shy he was. I helped him by taking his hand and introducing him to the other kids. It started slowly, but soon enough, they were inseparable. He just needed a little help,” she says.

2. Encourage them to meet new people

If a child is invited to a party, have him or her find out who will be there, where they go to school and what interests they have. Psychologists call this technique “social reconnaissance”.

If your child has been invited to a party but is hesitant or fearful about going, those concerns can be relieved by making some discreet inquiries. Will there be other children there whom your child knows?

If so, knowing that will probably make him or her more comfortable about attending the party. If there’s no one your child knows well, then encourage him or her to see the party as an opportunity to meet new people and make friends, thereby broadening his circle of friends.

It’s important for your child to show up. While the easy way may be to avoid situations that are uncomfortable, this won’t help them overcome their shyness.

“Nothing succeeds in overcoming shyness as much as experiencing social successes. But in order to succeed, you must be willing to go out and practise,” says Lynne Henderson, psychologist and director of The Shyness Clinic in Palo Alto, California.

Doing some social reconnaissance with your child in preparation for holiday events and parties, for example, will help them attain this social success.

3.Use role-play

Children have vivid imaginations. Make use of this by encouraging your shy child to create a ‘character’ or role that’s an unshy version of themself. Have the child mentally rehearse scenes in which the unshy character moves effortlessly in social settings.

This type of role-play was used by a mother to help her 11-year-old son feel more comfortable about attending a birthday party where he didn’t know most of the other children.

“I challenged Jabu to pretend he was a movie actor playing the role of someone who was an extrovert,” says Nomusa.

“We practised his ‘lines’ over and over. He’d pretend I was a stranger and would approach me with his hand extended, saying: ‘Hi. Myname is Jabu. I’ve seen you at school but don’t know your name.’ I’d shake his hand and give him my name. Then we’d practise some smalltalk.” It worked.

“He came home from the party elated because the practising paid off and he made two new friends.”

Parenting expert Nikki Bush highlights the benefits of puppets and role-play in the child’s development.

“They get to make up the roles, rules, situations and solutions. Puppets can help children express their feelings and take on different personae, such as a good child pretending to be a baddie and a shy child taking on the role of a warrior or saviour. Kids can work out their feelings, fears and frustrations this way.”

4. Help them learn body language

Shy, introverted people can send out signals of being distant, detached and withdrawn. This can easily be corrected by paying attention to body language, says U.S. psychologist Arthur Wassmer, author of Making Contact: A GuideTo Overcoming Shyness.

Wassmer uses a one-word reminder to list all the body language signals: SOFTEN. The ‘S’ stands for ‘smile’, the ‘O’ for ‘open posture’ (legs and arms uncrossed). The ‘F’ is for ‘forward lean’, the ‘T’ for ‘touch’ or friendly physical contact such directly at the person – and the ‘N’ for ‘nod’, which affirms that one is listening and understanding.

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5. Involve them in extra murals

Consider the example of getting your child into group activities such as sports or cultural activities.

Khathu has a shy eight-year-old daughter, whom she enrolled in a music class.

“She even has a hard time answering people who try to make small talk. I noticed she loves music. When she’s in her room alone, she’ll be performing. But the moment you walk in, she’ll stop. I made her take music classes because it’s something she loves. She plays the piano and sings. Now she’s gradually opening up to her peers and her teachers,” says Khathu.

“She’s slowly coming out of her shell.”

6. Ditch perfectionism

Like many adults, children tend to be too hard on themselves. Kids need reminders that they don’t have to perform perfectly at social events, or tell the funniest jokes, or be the most popular kid at school or the highest-scoring athlete.

Many children set standards so high that they’re impossible to achieve. In so doing, they set themselves up for failure. Parents should help their children set more realistic goals and standards.

7. Cultivate encouragement

Shy children tend to be sensitive individuals. Teach your child how to give a compliment, offer encouragement or provide consolation to a friend who is hurting.

Henderson notes: “Helping, giving and sharing takes you out of yourself and makes social interactions more pleasant.”

Another form of encouragement is positive reinforcement. Foundation phase teacher Maryke de Beer says: “Complimenting what they do or say does wonders for their confidence and self-esteem.”

8. Remind them of second chances

Don’t let a child believe that because of one failure, they’re permanently doomed. So, if they were too self-conscious to raise their hand in class, point out that they simply missed one opportunity.

Remind them of more chances. Despite a possible initial urge to avoid it, there’s probably a perfect opportunity to practise being unshy waiting for them around the corner. And they’ll be absolutely fine.

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