Recently, people have come to change how they think and feel about shyness. Through the internet and social media, it has become easier for us to connect with others despite lacking traditional social skills. Simultaneously, books such as Quiet, Introvert Power, and The Introvert Advantage all make a case for introversion as a good thing.
There’s a catch, however: shyness is not the same as introversion. Being an introvert means needing to spend more time alone or in an environment with less going on. Being shy is associated with fear of social judgment. Many people aren’t aware of this subtle difference.
We may recognize the implications and make efforts to help our kids overcome shyness. Clear dental aligners allow teeth correction without affecting socializing skills, for instance. Getting them involved in sports or music helps build confidence.
But without in-depth knowledge, we risk doing too little, too much, or taking the wrong measures to help kids despite having good intentions. How should childhood shyness be handled?
The dangers of being shy
Using this working definition, shyness is negative instead of introversion, which is more of a preference. Shy children will feel discomfort in social situations. In fact, they may be extroverts who want to socialize but lack the skills to do so.
Is the concern over shyness overblown? After all, while kids are born with different temperaments, they will have countless opportunities to learn and acquire those skills as they grow. Over time, perhaps discomfort can be overcome without undue fuss or intervention.
Before you decide on taking a laissez-faire approach, note that multiple studies indicate that shyness is strongly related to emotionality and the risk of internalizing problems. A shy kid has a higher chance of encountering more negative problems, such as bullying, poor academic performance, anxiety, or emotional withdrawal.
Moreover, shy children are already perceived by their peers and teachers from an early age, which influences their social interactions. As a result, shyness can become even further entrenched and hard to grow out of as they age. And withdrawal can make it difficult for them to open up about any problems they are having.
A relationship, not a cause
It’s essential to bear in mind that while child psychology is a science, it’s a complicated one.
Every child will have a unique outcome to their development, even in the case of identical twins. This is a result of myriad complicating and interacting factors. We have innate differences in personality traits, grow up in varying environments, and interact differently with peers and adults.
In studies of such complex issues, psychologists are careful to note that variables and outcomes are related. You can’t conclusively state that childhood shyness causes mental health problems and anxiety later in life. In some cases, they may be linked to a deeper issue, such as maltreatment.
What does this imply for parents, caregivers, and other family members or stakeholders in a child’s development?
Simply put, we don’t need to treat shyness itself. It’s merely a symptom. What we can do better, though, is address a problem that is by definition common to all shy children: a lack of social competence.
Creating a structure for socializing
From birth to around the age of five years, a child’s early experiences form the basis of their nascent social skills.
As the primary caregiver during this period, parents bear the greatest responsibility for this development. Their back-and-forth interactions with children create a sort of social concert that informs a child’s responses to other people.
Any deficiency in this stage can lead to subpar social skills as children begin to attend school and are exposed to more interactions with peers and teachers. From there, fellow children may behave insensitively towards them or exclude them from social circles. Teachers may also be less perceptive of the struggles of shy children.
Ideally, we could address gaps in the social concert from an early age. Yet many parents might be unable to lavish sufficient time and attention on their children due to work or other commitments.
Studies indicate that you can offset these challenges by creating the right structure around the child as they grow. In the ‘pyramid model’ for supporting social and emotional competence, what matters is providing a web of high-quality, nurturing, and responsive relationships. Thus, if parents are often unavailable, other caregivers or family members need to step up in this manner.
Only at the next tier would you resort to targeted interventions, then finally intensive programs designed by professionals for difficult cases.
Training in this model is available for families, teachers, and others involved in a child’s development. By seeing to it that such structure is present in your child’s environment, you can foster their social competence without directly targeting the issue of shyness itself.