Speaker Series (Parent Notes)

"Shy Children" Talk Given by Robert J Coplan, Professor
Department of Psychology, Carleton University, Ottawa.  [email protected]

Definition: Shyness = wariness and the fear of social ‘novelty’ ie new situations, things and people.

For older children, this manifests itself as self-consciousness and embarrassment in SITUATIONS OF PERCEIVED SOCIAL-EVALUATION.  Adolescence is therefore even more challenging for them.  They want to approach other kids, but are scared to do so, so they avoid conflict by hovering on the edge of social interactions.  In this way, they have gone as far as they can go; they can’t go any further to make that connection…

Nervous system is different to others biologically – like a tightly coiled spring, their heartrate monitor increases, even when resting.  Brainwaves can see this, cortisol levels are slightly higher than those of others.

Role of parents: parents tend to remove them from the stressful situation or to solve the problem for them.  BUT in this way, they aren’t facing these fears.  Also, parents model anxiety and highlight threats eg those in the world.  The shy child’s nervous system is already primed to feel threatened.  The child can come to see the world as a terrifying place.

Resources: Time magazine “The power of shyness”.

“Friends for Life” programme – Anxiety Prevention Programme for Children.  

Book: Silence is not Golden: Strategies for Helping the Shy Child by Christopher A Kearney.

The positive: these are kids who think before they act, BUT they tend to be prone to bad feelings, loneliness, anxiety, depression and are an easy target for bullying, for rejection and as a playmate.  However, MOST shy children don’t have these problems.

When to worry:

– Degree, consistency and interference.  How much, in just circumstances? And interference with their day-to-day stuff that they have to do.

– Anxiety can impede learning eg school is already a big source of stress, as they are surrounded by other extraverted kids.  They don’t pay as much attention therefore to what is going on in class, they have difficulties demonstrating what they know because they need to demonstrate it in a way they find very hard to do.  Most of what is going on with these kids is going on on the inside and teachers don’t see it.

– They tend to be over-dependent on teachers.

What parents can do:

– Ask them what helps them.

– Talk to the teachers in advance.  Please try to get the answer out of them by waiting a little longer for a response.  Very necessary for shy kids.  For teachers: praising shy kids in public can be awful; do it quietly.

– No ‘quick fixes’.

– Set realistic expectations.

– Lose the label “Hello!  My name is shy!”.

– Tell others not to call them shy.  You’re saying to them that it’s not a changeable behaviour.

– Acknowledge the feelings/ behaviour: it’s ok to be scared, but sometimes you need to be brave: you have to meet certain expectations eg say hello after a few minutes.  “The thing that upsets people is not the shy behaviour, but what they think it means eg that person doesn’t like me, is rude towards me…”

– Cognitive therapy

– Graduated exposure: one step at a time.  Lots of support along the way.  Keep praising – you were so brave!

– Relaxation techniques: breathing; blow up a balloon in your tummy!  Imagery: think of a favourite place, thing to do.  Clench your muscles, then let go.

– Be mindful of the warm-up period: you will feel that way, it’s ok to take your time, but eventually we will do this.

– Acknowledge the feelings but set limits on the behaviour.

– Prepare child for social interactions – what’s going to happen when you get there.  Role-play the situations.

– Go to places ahead of time, explain routines, what to expect…

– Start with a one-to-one playdate AT YOUR HOME: home advantage, scaffold it then pull back.  Build from here.

– What are the kinds of things you can do at recess: talk through specific stragegies: call other parents, where will your kids be? And brainstorm with the teacher.

– Be sure to emphasize, reinforce, attend to, express your pride, reward even the small social gains.

– Keep practising.  Practise, practise, practice because their natural response will be to keep going back down the hill…

If you are worried, talk to someone: a teacher, school counselor, family doctor

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