Shyness: What Is It?
Ashley, a 5th grader, is a good student, does her homework, and is bright. But on her progress report, as in the past, her teacher noted that she doesn’t participate much in class. Her teacher would like to see her raise her hand more, talk more in group discussion, and share her ideas with others. Her teacher wonders why this smart girl is so reserved.
At her parent-teacher conference, her mom pipes up—“Ashley is shy.” But what does that mean? Is that a problem? Is there some deeper underlying concern? Is she anxious or worried? Has she been bullied? All of these questions arise.
Dr. Perri Klass (“To help a shy child, listen,” New York Times, September 16, 2013) notes “Shyness is part of the great and glorious range of human normal.” Many individuals come into this world with a reserved, quiet temperament. Indeed, Kathleen Merikangas of the National Institute of Mental Health, and her colleagues surveyed 10,000 older children ages 13-18, and found that nearly half of these youngsters describes themselves as shy.
As far back as in the early 1950’s, researchers (Alexander Thomas, Stella Chess and Herbert Birch) observed that infants have 9 distinct temperaments that can be observed in the first few weeks of life! Four of these inborn predispositions relate to activity level, approachability, intensity, and mood, all of which can predispose a child to a more reserved, quiet demeanor.
As common as this temperament may be, it is not rewarded in school, “Children who are shy, who don’t raise their hand, who don’t talk in class, are really penalized in society,” Dr. Merikangas notes.
Their more communicative, open peers in the classroom and on the playground frequently overshadow reserved and quiet kids. Our current educational model, in an attempt to prepare children better for adult life, emphasize small group projects. Quiet and reserved youngsters may be under appreciated in this venue.
Dr. Klass is concerned that these children are at risk of being “pathologized” just as youngsters who are lively and rambunctious may be more likely to be diagnosed with A.D.H.D today. Sometimes it may be difficult for teachers and parents alike to determine what is within the normal range of disposition and what may be a sign of greater concern.
“Probably, the most important question is whether the child is in distress” notes Dr. Klass. In the large scale survey, about 5% of the teens identified themselves as being severely restricted by their “shyness.” In other words, is the child’s functioning impaired at school, home, and with peers? Children with more severe anxiety tend to become withdrawn and avoidant. These symptoms may represent more severe problems.
It is important to listen carefully to reserved children. Do they feel anxious? Are they worried? Do they seem over concerned in what others think? Are they avoiding situations where they may be anxious? Have they been bullied or marginalized by their peers? These questions may help parents sort out what is normal and what is a sign that help is needed.
Parents can help kids who are struggling with social anxiety to approach challenging social situations. Help them share their fears, listen without providing reassurance, and encourage them to tolerate their worries without avoidance. Sometimes role-playing and rehearsal can help worried children prepare for making a presentation in front of classmates.
When parents are unsure—is Ashley’s “shyness” normal or a sign of social anxiety, a trip to your pediatric or family health provider is in order. It is very difficult for parents to be objective about their own kids! We can’t see the trees for the forest. But primary care providers see scores of children in the same age and stage and can quickly determine whether more help is needed.
Do you have a shy child? How have you handled her temperament?