- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 12, 2004

Mary Alice Levine knew something was wrong after her daughter Ellen’s second or third week of kindergarten at Janney Elementary School in Northwest. Every morning, the youngster walked out the door crying.

“Kindergarten was a problem,” Mrs. Le-vine says. “But since she was very small, she’s always been shy.”

Ellen’s temperament is one that is shared by nearly one in two Americans, according to research done by Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University’s Shyness Institute.

Being shy doesn’t necessarily mean that your child is shut down or shut off from life. With practice, some behavioral adjustments and lots of parental support, shy children can learn to cope.

Over time, and with the help of her parents and her teacher, Ellen learned strategies that made her better able to handle social situations and interactions with peers.

“My teacher made things more friendly and less scary,” says Ellen, who is now a successful student at Alice Deal Junior High School. “And once I started to make friends, things got easier.”

But deep down, Ellen says, she’s still shy.

“There’s not really a cure for being shy,” she says. “I know I’m always going to get feelings of shyness.”

She’s hardly alone. About 10 to 20 percent of the population is born shy, according to research conducted by Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan in the 1980s. That means they have a genetic predisposition for shyness.

Even more people may become shy because of environmental factors, or through an especially traumatic experience, says Dr. Jean Thomas, program director of the Infant and Toddler Program at Children’s National Medical Center in Northeast.

“It can have something to do with biology, something to do with the genetics of a child and something to do with environmental stress,” she says. “Often, there’s a mixture.”

At Children’s Infant and Toddler Program, extremely shy children are given opportunities to ease into challenging behaviors. A shy child who is afraid of the swings, for example, would be given a chance to try out swinging in the controlled setting of the therapist’s office.

“We take a subtle, gradual approach,” Dr. Thomas says. “We start with a small movement and then increase it little by little.”

Defining what shyness is exactly can be far less clear-cut. Shy behavior can range from mild anxiety in social situations to a crushing, debilitating fear of new experiences.

For Ellen, small talk was the most difficult.

“During conversation, I’m not really sure what to talk about, but I realize that if you don’t speak up it just makes you shyer,” she says.

Easing shyness

How can you tell if your child has “crossed the line” from normal to debilitating shyness? Just look and listen, says Deborah Beidel, co-director of the Maryland Center for Anxiety Disorders at the University of Maryland at College Park. Mrs. Beidel directs the center along with Samuel Turner. Both are clinical psychologists.

“Is the child in significant distress?” she says. “Does he have headaches or stomachaches?” “Is he refusing to go to friends’ houses or missing out on childhood activities?”

At the Maryland Center for Anxiety Disorders, shy children are paired with nonshy volunteers in ways that allow them to interact in nonstressful situations. A favorite stopping place is Chuck E. Cheese, where shy children are given $5 worth of coins and told to find someone to spend it with. As you might expect, it’s fairly easy to find someone to play.

“We want to expose them to the thing they are afraid of, but we give them an opportunity to do it in a safe environment,” Mr. Turner says.

Coping with even moderate shyness can be challenging for both children and parents. It’s important for parents, and for shy people generally, to recognize that shyness can be a good thing, says Dr. Paul Steinberg, associate director of Georgetown University’s Counseling and Psychiatric Service. No one wants a world just of type-A personalities, he says.

“Shy people are generally more conscientious and sensitive,” says Dr. Steinberg, a psychiatrist who deals with shy adolescents and adults both at Georgetown and in his private practice. “We need enormous variation in the human species in order to survive.”

Parents often present the biggest obstacles to overcoming shyness, says Kenneth H. Rubin, director of the Center for Children, Relationships and Culture at the University of Maryland in College Park. The center facilitates collaborative research on the social, emotional and cognitive development of children and adolescents.

Mr. Rubin is also the author of “The Friendship Factor: Helping Our Children Navigate Their Social World and Why it Matters for Their Success and Happiness.”

“Parents who are excessively comforting are exacerbating the problem,” he says. “So are parents who are overcontrolling. What they need to do is set up some play dates.”

Anxious parents will often make the child even more anxious, Dr. Thomas says.

“Children have a built-in capacity to check on their parents’ emotional status,” she says. “If parents are worriers or concerned, they should probably go get a professional opinion from a psychologist or psychiatrist.”

Dr. Steinberg says what they shouldn’t do is turn to drugs for a quick fix to the problem. Drug companies are doing people a disservice when they label a personality trait as a pathology, he says.

The challenge for the shy child is to be able to take the necessary steps to ensure that he or she can interact with others in a meaningful way.

“Not all shy children remain shy,” Mr. Rubin says. “Only about 20 percent of shy children remain shy all their lives.”

How do shy children learn not to be shy? Through a series of experiences that minimize anxiety and allow them to practice interactions in social situations.

Ellen, for example, would make a point to raise her hand in class even when she felt uncomfortable about what she would say. That was a conscious decision on her part, she says, after she had decided that anything was better than being shy all the time.

“I knew I didn’t like being shy,” she says. “Even if I was going to sound stupid if I said something, I knew that was better than not saying anything — and speaking wasn’t as hard as I thought.”

‘Slow to warm up’

Yet very young children may need other kinds of prompts. For Sheila Niswander of Dunkirk, Md., that meant role-playing with her son, John Michael, now 8.

“I started noticing that when he was in school and addressed by adults, he didn’t respond,” says Mrs. Niswander, who teaches at Mount Harmony Elementary in Owings, the same school John Michael attends.

So, at home, Mrs. Niswander and her son role-played; they practiced what to say to adults.

“We even practiced saying, ‘Good morning,’ and we talked about how to ask an adult to reiterate a question,” she says.

Those are the kind of things that might have been practiced more easily in days gone by, when parents and grandparents were more frequently at hand.

The social changes of the past few decades have actually made it easier for some children to be shy. More time spent with baby sitters and caregivers, less unstructured downtime with neighbors and friends, and the overwhelming preoccupation to do things as quickly as possible mean that children have fewer chances to work on the skills that will make them more comfortable.

“Shy children are slow to warm up,” Dr. Thomas says. “They need more time to process situations.”

It can be difficult for shy children to take on new challenges — whether it is school, the swings or public speaking — because they are so hard on themselves.

“I always thought that the other kids would think I sounded stupid,” Ellen says.

That’s why many shy children try to lay low, Mr. Rubin says.

“Many children choose to remain quiet if they feel their behaviors are to be evaluated by others,” he says. “That’s why it’s important to put things in a positive frame.”

So what else can parents do to ease the strains of shyness for their children? Here’s a sampling from the various experts consulted for the article.

• Appreciate the child as an individual. “You can believe that a child has great capacity, but it also helps that parents’ hopes are consistent with who the child is,” Dr. Thomas says.

• Talk with your child’s teachers. “Ellen’s kindergarten teacher was so helpful and supportive,” Mrs. Levine says. “She really made her feel comfortable in the classroom, spending time with her and moving her gently into small groups.”

• Use positive reinforcers. “Providing frequent feedback for all successes, including the smallest, will help build self-esteem,” Dr. Thomas says.

• Set up small group activities where your child won’t be overwhelmed. “If your child doesn’t do well at violent sports, find another kind of sport that will get him out there without feeling overwhelmed,” Mr. Rubin says.

• Pair them with a younger child. “Some of the best friendships for shy children are children who are slightly younger,” Mr. Rubin says. “Shy kids often do well with younger kids. The pressure’s off, and they can build self-confidence.”

• Engage with your child. “Have playtime or time integrated with the activities of daily living,” Dr. Thomas says. “Talking back and forth, passing toys back and forth, allows you to take an interest in what your child is interested in. It allows the child to feel appreciated and understood.”

• Help your child find a place where he or she feels secure. “Finding a good place where they can feel comfortable is very important,” Dr. Steinberg says. “A lot of shy people work well in religious groups. There aren’t usually too many bullies in church.”

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