Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

19 Av 5761 - August 8, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Produced and housed by
Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Home and Family
by Masha Wolf, M.A., Child Therapist and Counselor

Part One

My son is very shy. When he's around people he doesn't know well, he won't speak at all. I'm very worried about his future. How can I help him?

Shyness is a problem that affects a large part of the population. If you have a shy child, you are not alone. There are many things that you can do to help your shy child.

The first and possibly the most important thing to do is to learn to accept your child as he is and to understand him. Many shy children are introverts and introversion is not a bad trait at all, simply a personality type. Introverts often prefer to be alone or with small groups of close friends. They will often have one or two very close lasting friendships rather than many superficial ones. While extroverts may feel energized by being wtih people, introverts feel drained by too much socialization and need to be alone or need down time to recover. The exhaustion introverts feel in social situations may be a result of their social anxiety or it may be the effort they expend when they act against their natural tendency to want to be alone and quiet. There are many positive traits that often go along with being introverted. Introverts tend to be deep thinkers and are often sensitive and loyal friends.

Shy children tend to be more anxious around others than outgoing children. Although many factors may affect shyness, research seems to indicate it is an inborn trait, which is actually affected by a part of the brain called the amygdale. This can explain why very outgoing parents may have extremely shy children. Parents who are extroverted need to learn to accept the fact that their child is not like them but that he has unique traits that make him a very valuable person even if he is very shy.

Introverted parents need to recognize that their child is NOT them, and that their child may be comfortable with things the parent was not comfortable with and anxious about things the parent was not anxious about. Both kinds of parents need to control their anxiety about their child's future and their desire to pressure him to change. Pressure and pushing will not help and is usually harmful. A parent who scares his child and belittles his fears by telling him, "Just go and speak to the person," will make him feel that his anxiety is very real and it needs to be accepted and understood before it can be changed. Later, we will discuss interventions which can help the shy child to function better in his world.

Recognizing the Shy Child

A shy child has some typical behaviors that identify him. He may tend to avoid eye contact, avoid stressful situations, have temper tantrums, be closed, not talk in class, have red cheeks, sweaty palms, dry mouth or stomach aches, and he may feel that no one likes him even if this is not the case. A shy child can have all or just a few of these symptoms/behaviors.

Dr. Ward Swallow, author of The Shy Child, recommends assessing the degree of shyness by using his Shyness Spectrum. I have adapted the questionaire and included it below.

Is your child uncomfortable with other children? Does he fear new situations or people and avoid activities that would bring him in contact with unfamiliar people? Does he experience anxiety when speaking in front of a group? Does he: misjudge how others view him; refuse to separate from family; prefer to play alone; show physical signs of anxiety in new social situations; worry excessively about upcoming events or activities?

Does he: freeze in normal social situations; need recovery time; over-react with feelings of shame or low self worth after social interactions; depend on others to communicate his needs and wants? Does anxiety interfere with school work?

Although children can be more or less shy at different stages of their lives, this questionnaire may help a parent to decide how much help a child needs and how to give it to him. Swallow describes three types of children on the Shyness Spectrum: the moderately shy child, the strongly shy child and the severely shy child.

The moderately shy child may be quiet and may need more time alone but does have a few good friends. He may become anxious in social situations but the shyness does not interfere drastically with the child's performance in life. On the Shyness Spectrum, he may exhibit some of the behaviors on the questionnaire but not all of them and not all the time.

The strongly shy child may avoid many stressful situations that are necessary in normal social functioning. For a strongly shy child, shyness interferes with his life and functioning in society.

The severely shy child may display anxiety that is very severe. The anxiety may have progressed to a disorder such as social phobia, panic disorder and selective mutism (a child who speaks only with selected individuals -- usually the immediate family -- and does not speak otherwise) or clinical depression. The severity is usually quite obvious due to the child's almost complete inability to function in a given social situation. He may display complete reluctance to speak to people he is not fully comfortable with or he may refuse to leave family members to go to school. A child who is severely shy according to the above criteria should have professional help.

Children who are either moderately shy or strongly shy can be helped to live happier lives and made to feel better adjusted with the framework of their shyness with the help and support of their parents. Hopefully, with a bit of work and love, some of the techniques in this article can help a parent help his or her shy child.

Shy children are naturally anxious in social situations and may tend to perceive social situations poorly as a result of their anxiety. They also experience a heightened degree of critical self-talk, which further reduces their self confidence. Self-talk is an ongoing sub- or semi-conscious dialogue that takes place in the mind. If one pays attention, it is usally quite easy to tune into self-talk. Even young children can be taught to listen to their self-talk with the proper guidance. Self-talk is a very important component in shyness work because it can be controlled with time and can help guide a child in overcoming significant hurdles in his anxiety by helping him view himself more positively.

NEXT WEEK: Shyness: How to Help


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