Each child comes into the world with a different set of potential characteristics. As parents, our challenge is to find ways to work with, and celebrate, the people our children are. Some children are slow to warm to others. To help your child deal with shyness, he first needs you to lovingly accept and validate him, just the way he is, while at the same time warmly encouraging him, indicating that things are actually safer than he can tell.
Children benefit from information
First of all, talk with your child before going into situations where he tends to become anxious. If he's very young, you might not get many words back from him, but you could start off with something like this: “It's almost story time. Remember how many children were at the library last time? Remember how noisy and busy all those children can get sometimes? Today when we go to hear the story, we'll sit at the edge of the circle so you can have some space around you and I'm going to hold you right in my lap like this. If there are too many people for you, or too many sounds, you can tuck your head under my arm like a little bird or take my hands and cover up your ears.”
See what you can do to get your child engaged in the plan to handle this situation. You might take a pile of stuffed animals and set one up with a book and play “story time.” You be the small animal that comes into the setting and finds it frightening. See what your child thinks of to work out a solution for the small animal that is afraid of crowded spaces. If he begins to laugh, he’ll gain confidence in himself as you play this game over and over.
You can have fun while you help your child deal with shyness
Before going into a situation that you think your child may find frightening, try using our method of Special Time. Children clearly thrive on moments when we are just with them. Take ten or fifteen minutes before you get ready to go and shine your undivided attention onto your child, and do whatever it is that he enjoys doing with you at the moment. Play pillow fight. Drop lightweight balls down the stairs together. Allow some messy water play. Put your child in charge of the interaction and follow him, letting him be in control of the relationship for a time. Radiate enthusiasm for his ideas and desires. This will help to bolster his connection to you and help him store up a little extra confidence for the challenge ahead.
Fear releases in laughter
Play that helps children overcome their fears starts by allowing a child Special Time—during which the grownup does whatever the child wants to do. During this time, look for opportunities to take the less powerful role. If your child is pretending to go to work, playfully cry and beg him not to go. If your child wants to play chase, try to catch him, but fail most of the time. If your child wants to pretend to go to the kid's gym, act playfully afraid and hide behind him. Your child's fears will release as he laughs while you play the less powerful role. The more you are able to the laughter going, the bolder your child will become.
Children are helped by your optimistic tone
Before making the transition into a situation that has been troubling your child, talk him through what is about to happen with a warm, confident tone. Having a tone of optimism can help children feel close enough to their parent to flow better into the new setting. Then, when you get there, close and connected, you can make light overtures offering a gentle invitation to play with you or the other children. Allow a few minutes between overtures for your child to try using his own initiative to enter the group. Keep your tone warm and supportive.
Releasing feelings of fear
If your child is having trouble breaking out of isolated behavior with simple encouragement, you might need to help him in a more active way. Get close and make eye contact. Listen if he begins to cry. Don’t try to talk him out of his feelings of fear or upset. Listening and allowing a child who is frightened to cry hard is the opposite of what most parents do. It works beautifully, but needs a bit of explanation!
Children become afraid when circumstances beyond their control, or circumstances they don't understand, rock their fragile sense of safety. These feelings can get “stuck” inside a developing mind and mask themselves as a temperamental tendency toward characteristics such as shyness. Luckily, you can help him let go of old fears. We can help children with their fears in the play we do with them and in how we handle the times when their fears overwhelm them.
To safely release the fearful feelings, children may hang their fears or sense of isolation on a pretext that is ordinary and commonplace. This way, he can bring up the feelings without any chance of experiencing a real threat to his safety. Your child is ready to release old feelings of fear when he is acting deeply afraid of a harmless situation.
Fear releases as a child cries, trembles, and perspires
When your child's fears have seized him, he's ready to work through those fears. At this time it's your job to be as warm, accepting, and confident as you can. Don't try to change a safe situation. Your child has to feel his fears in order to shed them. Your confident presence will make all the difference for him.
Move ever so slowly toward the frightening situation and hold him close. If he is crying, struggling, trembling, and perspiring while in your arms, things are just right. He may feel terrible, but you are there to assist while he sheds that terror. Tell him, “I'm right here and I'm keeping you safe. I won't go away.” Your child may protest, but if you remove the thing he’s frightened of, he won't be able to shed the old fear. Take a deep breath and know that working through the fears, while safe in your arms with you keeping watch, will help him move forward with a deeper connection to you and a clearer confidence in himself when it's done.
The library isn’t going to be the best place for this kind of work with your child, but you can surely find a situation in a park or at a party with friends (that you’ve forewarned) that is workable. The more tender and confident you are, the faster your child’s fears will melt.
Children can generally cry and struggle, tremble, and perspire for up to an hour before they are done with a chunk of fear. If you are in a situation that allows it, stay with your child until he realizes that he is safe in your arms and all is well. When he reaches that point he will relax. You'll be able to feel that the stress and anxiety have washed out of him. He may fall into a deeply peaceful sleep. His behavior can be expected to change markedly after such a session.
Here’s how one caregiver helped a shy and frightened child at her center one day.
The local firemen in their big red engine and their boots, hats, and jackets visited my day care center one day. One of the girls was terrified, and began to scream. I began to use Staylistening with her, because the other children were fascinated and were fine with my co-teacher.
They listened to the firemen explain their truck, explored it, touched their gear, and had a great time for forty minutes while I held this child, who was screaming. I kept reassuring her that she was safe, and I looked into her eyes the whole time. I listened to her. And every few minutes, I took one step toward the firemen.
Finally, she stopped, wiped her eyes, and wanted to get down. She went directly to one of the firemen. He welcomed her, and she climbed into his arms and grinned. She was excited to be close. She touched his hat and stood on his lap. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was like going from night to day!
Helping your children release their fears can be difficult work. It's surprisingly hard to let children laugh long, and to listen to the depth of their fear and grief. You'll find that things go better when you have a listener for yourself, so that you, too, have the chance to express what you think and notice what you feel as you work hard to help your child with shyness.
This article was based on material from three of Patty Wipfler's articles:
“Policies that Work Well When Children Get Together”
“Helping Children Conquer Their Fears”
You can find more information about doing Special Time with your child in the NAPPA Gold Award winning series, Listening to Children by Patty Wipfler.
Further Resources: Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen