The Importance of Listening

SHY CHILDREN

Shy children are everywhere – it is a common temperament for children to have. Some children grow out of it throughout their school years, and some don’t. But the question is, how do help children who are shy? How do we help them feel comfortable about coming out of their shell? An article in the New York Times has helped to illustrate this issue.

Perri Klass puts forward an example of a young girl she for a physical – she was a middle school girl who was reportedly a good student, but didn’t talk in class. When asked if this was a problem she replied “I’m just shy”.

Klass was then faced with the age old dilemma. Should she suggest a counsellor? An academic evaluation? Should she ask more questions? Question how she feels about school? About friends? Is she being bullied? Or should she reassure her? Lots of people are shy, she thought.

However, non of these responses would have been wrong. You need to LISTEN to these children, and understand WHY they might be shy. Children who are bullied might not want to cause a fuss, or draw attention to themselves. Children with learning difficulties may be embarassed and so may not talk in class – or maybe just something small like not understanding the topic. And children who talk less require more listening, they may be anxious or afraid, and they may just need kindness and understanding.

However, there is NOTHING abnormal about being shy. It’s part of human nature, to be cautious, and to be reserved. In fact, in Kathleen Merinkangas’s study of 10,000 13 to 18 year olds she found that half of the children described themselves as shy. So it’s a lot more common than you may think. However they can be really penalised in today’s society. When you don’t talk in class, or try to answer questions, you can often be put on the spot or assumed to be ‘dumb’. If you don’t talk to your friends or socialise you can be seen as rude, or not bothered. There are many ways children can be ‘punished’ for being shy – however if you just stop and listen and try to understand what it is that’s making them shy, then they may feel more comfortable about it.

Dr William B Carey comments that “Temperament is the largely inborn set of behaviours that are the style with which a person functions, not to be confused with their motivation of their developmental abilities.” Shyness is one stage on the temperamental continuum – it is the part which involves dealing with novel situations. When you consider that starting a new school year, with new people, is very daunting, it’s no wonder so many children nowadays are shy. There are more pressures on children now, especially here in Hong Kong where children are expected to attend an interview for good Kindergartens. What most children need now is support, from parents and teachers, and friends. Sometimes they will need help to make connections with the other people in their class, or to feel like they can put up their hand and answer a question.

After a month or so, it may be that some extra support is needed. If your child isn’t settled in, or is still really shy, there may be another cause for the anxiety. However you may not need to see a specialist – if you just take the time to listen to your child. Ask them how their day was, ask them questions about it. Listen to the points they can say with confidence, and don’t let them skip over the bits that were hazy. By just having a normal conversation with your child you may actually hit the root of the problem, and you may be able to tackle it together. Maybe there is someone, or something, in the class that is making them feel uncomfortable. Maybe there is actually a problem at home that they can’t seem to tackle alone. A child’s mind is very complex, and sometimes it takes an adult to help them deconstruct what they are thinking and feeling.

However, if you do decide you need to see a specialist that could be a good decision as well, as long as you’re not pushing your child too far. Some children are just shy, generally, so we do need to just encourage them.

All temperaments have different zones – uncomfortable outer zones, and comfortable inner zones. So children who are eager and hyper active may be showing signs of other problems, a child’s quietness and shyness may also be a cry for help.

However, there is always going to be the issue of over analysing children’s behaviour, and diagnosing a shy child with anxiety problems when there is no need. I feel that most of the shy children in the world are just that; shy. They may be finding new situations uncomfortable, or may feel like they can’t answer in class. But they don’t have any serious underlying issues with anxiety. Similarly with hyperactive children – it is easy to diagnose a shy child with anxiety issues, just like it is easy to diagnose a hyperactive child with ADHD. So this is another area where listening to your child is very important.

The biggest question when it comes to shyness is; is your child in distress. Dr Merikanga’s study did distinguish between simple shyness and the psychiatric diagnosis of social phobia. With the large amount of children who were considered to be shy – only 5% of the children in the study were found to suffer from social anxiety/social phobia.

So, what else can you do?

Well, if you are trying to find ways to help your shy child settle into a new school or a new class, one example put forward by Klass is to help them rehearse possible encounters and interactions. Help by role playing with them, go through what could happen ahead of time. And then plan to reward your child’s bravery afterwards – reinforcing that this is a positive step for them that should be repeated. Even if you need to rehearse every day, it will make your child feel more at ease, and will help them come out of their shell a little bit more every day.

Just try not to take over – if you rescue them too soon, or too much, the child wont develop a coping mechanism for unfamiliar situations. This will mean that when faced with novel situations alone they are likely to shut down, and not be able to mentally deal with it. Gradually reduce your help, slowly retreat and push them to do more by themselves. This should cause them to grow stronger.

A good way to do this could be to arrange to walk to school with another parent, so your child can bond with another child. Or a teacher could pair up a shy child with an appropriate classmate. Having one friend to share the experiences with is always helpful.

But whatever you do, do not tell your child to NOT be shy. Shyness is natural, after all, and if it is a part of your child’s personality then you shouldn’t be trying to stop it. You should try and encourage them, respect them, and honour them. This will help your child find their own way in the world, and their own way of dealing with situations in their own way, using their own personality.

In the Sunday School class I assist, I see a lot of children with a lot of temperament ranges. But there is one adorable little boy who is unbelievably shy. I have seen him with his mum and sister, and he is excited, and loud, and very happy. However in a classroom with other children he finds it hard to participate. It is tough when I don’t know his background, but assuming he is just a shy child I ask him questions about his week, about his family, sometimes even about the clothes he is wearing (one week he came in wearing an awesome pair of basketball sunglasses bigger than his head!). When I do this, he lights up. All I need to do is look into his eyes, ask him a question about himself, and pay attention to his answer, and it’s like he is a completely different child. If this isn’t proof that listening to shy children can help them, then I don’t know what is.

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Written by: Philippa Berry

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