Why it’s best not to say ‘don’t be shy’ to your quiet child

Your child’s reluctance at the school gates is not cause for concern – they may simply be an introvert

Writer Susan Cain found it mystifying as a child why certain adults were so intent on organising children into big group activities – "let's all get together and sing a song as loudly as we can!" kind of thing.

“I remember at one point being asked to sing that iconic song ‘If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands...’ and I’d think ‘I’m not happy right now; I was happy five minutes ago when I was off doing my own thing, but why I’m doing this I have no idea’.”

If you are an introvert, you will know how she felt.

Cain, a former Wall Street lawyer, wrote Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, in 2012, and propelled herself into a new career as co-founder of The Quiet Revolution. In an Apple podcast series she hosts for parents, Cain talks about "the long runway" – the extra time and attention some quiet children need before they take flight.

It’s a pertinent message this week as parents and teachers focus on how children are settling in reopened schools and pre-schools. There is extra scrutiny of their behaviour due to pandemic-fuelled anxiety about social anxiety.

The sight of little Colm running into school each morning, wanting to high-five all and sundry, will make onlookers smile. But Ciara, who hangs back and is slow to talk to others, may soon become an object of concern.

Yes, there are very anxious children for whom the return to school is cripplingly challenging but others are introverts and/or just a bit “shy”. However, don’t make that comment to their face because, says psychotherapist and author Stella O’Malley, it’s not nice for a child to hear their quietness or shyness commented on and regarded as a problem.

“I do think this has become the era of the extrovert,” she says. “Up to 20 odd years ago there was a lot of respect for the introvert and space given for somebody to be quiet and thoughtful and do their own thing.

“That got washed away and we thought it’s about charisma, all about personality, all about networking – and it’s just not. I think the introverted child is looked on slightly nervously and I don’t think that is appropriate and is quite damaging, with a lower-case d.”

Interacting

Broadly speaking, extroverts are energised by interacting with other people, while introverts find time alone re-energises them. Estimates of what percentage of the population falls into each category vary but the two personality types are at either end of a spectrum, with “ambiverts” occupying the middle ground.

Shy children are the "leg grabbers", says psychotherapist Joanna Fortune, at least in their early years. "These are the kids that have the social skills, are well able to play and engage with others but they need that little bit longer lead-in time than other kids do, and that is all it is."

She advises parents not to be peeling them off your leg at the creche or school entrance with a “you’ll be grand – off you go”. Rather acknowledge what is happening: “I think your shy part has popped out and you are just letting me know that you need a couple of minutes before you are ready to walk in.”

Two minutes of talk and maybe looking together through a classroom window will be much more effective than two minutes of trying to peel a crying child off you, advises Fortune, author of the 15-Minute Parenting series of books.

“I always think with shy children who hold back and assess the situation first – isn’t that actually quite smart? They have developed strategies that they know work for them and it is up to us adults to respect and support them through that.”

Rather than labelling your quiet child as “shy”, or if you hear anybody else doing that, O’Malley urges parents to substitute more constructive words. You have power to give a child lovely messages about themselves, so how about “reflective”, “thoughtful” or “self-contained”?

Anyway, she continues, if you think your child is “shy” is that accurate? Or is it they are just not gravitating towards loudness, which isn’t the same thing at all. Provided they have the ability to join in, the fact that they don’t always want to may be down to being an introvert rather than a lack of social skills.

“If a kid consistently happily goes out of the group, maybe that’s what they want to do,” says O’Malley, with an emphasis on the word happily. They are “nourishing their soul”. But if they are out of the group because they don’t have the social skills to be in it, then an adult may need to help them.

Holding back

Author and retired HSE psychologist Patricia FitzPatrick also pleads with parents not to say “don’t be shy” to a child who is holding back. At that moment the child wants to be in the background, rather than having attention drawn to them and being pushed forward, she points out.

Indeed, she believes the response of some adults to shy children touches on the whole “consent” issue, which is normally discussed in a sexual context.

“Really consent should be taught to children across the board; we can do it very naturally right from the beginning.” Pushing a shy child, or insisting that they give a relation a kiss, is teaching them, she suggests, that if an adult you trust tells you to do something, you should do it.

This slowness to accept others, which may or may not peter out as a child gets older, is not a problem in itself, says FitzPatrick. Nor is normal anxiety that can arise for a child in new situations. Whereas problematic anxiety is likely to be accompanied by physical symptoms, such as tummy ache, becoming distressed and displaying a lot of negative emotions about going into situations – situations they might have been comfortable with previously.

Fortune advises parents to seek professional help if shyness coupled with problematic anxiety persists in a child into October – or sooner if the distress is escalating.

There’s heightened concern about how “generation Covid” are going to cope with peers in pre-school or primary school, and whether the limited mixing of teenagers over the past year and a half will continue to have negative consequences. “The narrative is that they have all been socially walloped and they are all inept socially,” says O’Malley. And schools will have to compensate with greater emphasis on classroom bonding activities.

She is not convinced. The gentler pace of life and greater freedom that pandemic living brought to some families provides us all with a chance to step back and realise how extroverted creches and schools have become, she argues.

There is pressure on introverted children to join in, even at breaks, “when honestly their instinctive need to go to the outside of the yard and be on their own is exactly right for them”, says O’Malley. The child who steps out and listens may just be “filling their tank” and if extroverts crash into that, it can be quite disturbing.

Intrusion

Extroverts presume that introverts would welcome being invited into everything, but the well-meaning intervention can be a tiresome intrusion, O’Malley says, particularly if the intruder won’t take “no” for an answer.

O’Malley believes that, generally speaking, it is extroverts who are drawn to teaching. In leading circle time, classroom participation and team work, “extroverts can’t quite wrap their heads around the fact that not everybody is into the group thing”.

If you have a child who, on return from school, likes to wander upstairs to spend half an hour taking their uniform off, that’s probably an introverted kid, she says, replenishing themselves, before coming down to the melee of dinner and activities.

“The relentlessness of breakfast, busy school, not able to hang back at lunch because of the social emphasis on ‘don’t be a weirdo, don’t be on your own’, then coming home and going on to activities – that exhausts kids.”

Covid-19 restrictions have tempered the extrovert nature of school, suggests Fortune, tending as they do to favour children who like smaller group interaction. She also reminds parents that they may be projecting their anxiety on to the child, and that teachers can be trusted to “know what is at a normal range of hesitation and what is over and above”.

A child who is shy, is often the quieter, well-behaved, more thoughtful child, says FitzPatrick, who believes almost every negative has a positive, which is why she wrote the ebook Effective Parenting in a Time of Covid-19 that is available free from effectiveparenting.ie.

It's essential, says Louise Shanagher of Creative Mindfulness, that both children and parents know it is okay to feel shy, despite the fact that generally there is more praise for traits of extroversion and outgoingness then there is for a quieter, more private child. "That is to do with how we're socially conditioned to think one is better than the other. What is most important for a child is to feel accepted for who they are."

She too stresses: “It is different if there are issues, if they are very anxious or refusing to go into school, but if they’re going in and engaging but are quiet, it is very important we value them.”

An extrovert parent may be impatient or fretful with an introvert child and “that comes to parents wanting a child to be like themselves”, says Shanagher. Children need to be validated “for who they are and not who the parent wants them to be – that can cause a lot of issues for children if they are not accepted and feel pressurised to be like sisters and brothers or the parents.”

Mindfulness

Shanagher, who has co-authored the first mindfulness-based curriculum for Irish primary schools, teaches children that shyness is a visitor that comes and goes. Give this feeling a name, she suggests, such as Shy Sam, and while he may be here today, he will be gone again another day.

Mindfulness helps a child manage difficult emotions and difficult thoughts, rather than making them super confident, she explains. Research is showing, she adds, that self-compassion can build more long-term resilience than nurturing self-esteem, which is based on a positive perception of oneself. Whereas being kind to yourself is the basis of acceptance of who you are, be it introvert or extrovert, and also the foundation for building relationships with others.

Finally, just as parents learn to spot when tiredness or hunger is affecting their children’s mood, so can needing some time alone. “What introverts do is fall into screens, as it’s the only way to be on their own. It’s like ‘back off world’,” says O’Malley. “It’s fascinating when you see it happen. It’s literally like a shield from the world.”

If they’re getting brittle and cranky about wanting their screens it may be because they have this need for solitude. “The child won’t recognise it but the more perceptive adult can.” That’s when parents need to encourage them to go out into the garden and kick a ball or take time out in a bedroom where there are things, rather than people, that they can “hang out” with.

For teenagers, there is a lot of emphasis on being in a gang and social media promotes the notion that quantity of friendships trumps quality. “The social mores in secondary school are very intensely that you need a group. Just two best friends hanging out are looked on as weirdos and nerds and it’s not fair, it’s not appropriate but it is the way it is.”

“Let’s as a culture,” O’Malley adds, “remind ourselves that being self-contained and having one-on-one friendships are great nourishing things; they are not necessarily a problem.”

If there’s a quiet child in your house, here’s some advice from the experts:

– Don't label your child as "shy".
– Do reframe the trait positively as, for example, "thoughtful" or "self-contained".
– Don't force a child into a situation that is clearly way outside their comfort zone with a "sure you'll be grand".
– Do try reflective listening: instead of asking "why don't you join in?", try a statement like "you are wary about new situations" or "you like time alone" and see what the child comes back with, says Patricia FitzPatrick.
– Do play with your child every day and be completely present: "no phones, no nothing because if you are distracted, your child is distracted by what is distracting you", says Joanna Fortune.
– Don't organise a play date with the most outgoing child in the class, thinking that will help; it is likely to be overwhelming.
– Do let a child choose a playmate to be invited over to your house.
– Don't point to outgoing siblings and suggest they follow their lead.
– Do validate the child for who they are, says Louise Shanagher.

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