When your shy kid comes across as a jerk

What should you do if your kid refuses to engage with others?

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

My kid is shy to the point of seeming terribly rude. When adult friends of mine say “hi”, he flees like a chased squirrel. It’s really embarrassing, and I’m not sure what to do. Help?

Yours,

Mortified Mom

Dear Mortified Mom,

Welcome to the club! My kids used to be so, so shy — to the point of refusing to engage with adults and crying if I nudged them to say hello. Then I had to deal with a screaming child and an offended adult, and, well, that was no fun at all.

Before I get into how to handle (even prevent!) situations like this, I want to define some key terms. We tend to treat shyness, social anxiety and introversion as if they’re the same thing, but they’re not. A shy child feels nervous in social situations because he worries he might be judged, rejected or humiliated. A socially anxious kid, on the other hand, has his shyness dial ramped up to 11; social anxiety is a diagnosable (and treatable) disorder in which people are so persistently afraid of being judged by others that they have trouble handling everyday situations. As a source once explained to me, shy kids often struggle to transition to a new school, but after a few months they’re OK. Socially anxious kids, on the other hand, may never get to the point of feeling comfortable and may even refuse to go to school. Research suggests that 30 to 40 percent of very shy kids go on to develop social anxiety at some point.

And then there’s introversion, which is another beast entirely and has nothing to do with shyness or social anxiety. An introvert prefers being alone or in small groups because that’s what he finds most satisfying and energizing (whereas an extrovert prefers more socially stimulating situations). It has nothing to do with nervousness or fear, but rather from where people draw their energy. Contrary to popular belief, shyness and introversion don’t always go hand-in-hand: A person can be a shy extrovert or an outgoing introvert. (I, however, am firmly in the shy introvert camp.)

If your child seems socially anxious, in that his shyness prevents him from being able to handle everyday life, you may want to talk to your pediatrician or a child psychologist. But if your kid is just shy in some social situations — even if painfully so — here are three things you can do to be a supportive parent.

  1. Remember that shyness isn’t bad.

It’s hard to remember this when our kids are refusing to exchange niceties and coming off as snobby brats. But in fact, shyness is actually “normal and adaptive,” said Koraly Pérez-Edgar, a psychologist at Penn State University who studies shyness, when I interviewed her for a related story I wrote for The New York Times. It can be advantageous to be slow to jump in when faced with novelty. Shyness “helps us slow down and figure out our environment,” she said.

The problem is, we have cultural expectations for politeness that are often at odds with our children’s temperaments and feelings. And our culture tends to celebrate outgoingness and pathologize shyness. My mom told me that when I was in preschool, my teacher said she was concerned because I liked playing alone or with just one or two other kids. Which, let’s be clear, is perfectly OK — yet apparently not always interpreted that way. (Who’s surprised I went on to be a writer?) So it’s important to remember that shyness is not a character flaw; it’s not something that we need to “fix” in our kids. And if we try, we may just make them more self-conscious.

It’s worth keeping in mind, too, that shyness is not a fixed trait: Kids often become less shy over time because they learn how to handle social situations the more they encounter them. Pérez-Edgar’s research has shown, for instance, that when shy kids go to daycare, they become less shy over time than shy kids who don’t go to daycare. Social practice helps. For the vast majority of shy kids, “you don’t need curricula, workbooks or to see a therapist — live your daily lives, and for most kids, that’s enough,” she said. Yesterday, we went to our local library, and my son — once incredibly shy — couldn’t find a book he wanted. So what did he do? He walked right up to the librarian he’d never met to ask for help. I had to pick my jaw up off the floor.

Also: Try not to label your child as “shy,” especially in front of them. I know, I know — I’ve just said shyness isn’t bad, so why would calling someone “shy” be bad? Also, haven’t I used shyness as a label like 400 times in this newsletter? Yes, yes, touché. The point is that because shyness is often framed as a negative, it could feel like an insult if your child hears you use the term to describe them. And since shyness often eases over time, it doesn’t even make sense to describe someone (especially a child) as shy. You don’t want to “make it sound like it's an immutable quality of her personhood,” because it’s not, explained psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore. So instead, label the feeling — maybe you say that your kid is feeling unsure or nervous, or even feeling a bit shy right now.

  1. Talk through new situations and plans in advance.

Let’s say, in a parallel non-Covid universe, you’ve been invited to a party at your boss’s house and you have to bring your daughter, who’s extremely shy. You know your boss is going to want to chit-chat with her, yet you also know your daughter would rather poke a wasp’s nest than look your boss in the eye and engage in dialogue. What do you do?

First, walk through in advance what you think will happen at the party. Maybe you say, OK, we’re going to drive to Ms. Janssen’s house, and then we’ll get out and ring the doorbell. And then Ms. Janssen will let us in and we’ll say hello to her, and then you can sit down somewhere and read the books you’ve brought. “Talking about what's going to happen beforehand makes it a little less new, less unexpected,” explained Vanessa LoBue, a child psychologist at Rutgers University. And the less new and scary a situation seems, the less nervous your kid will feel.

Now, let’s zero in on the part of this scenario that may cause the most trouble: And then Ms. Janssen will let us in and we’ll say hello. Come up with a detailed plan for how your child can meet your politeness expectations while also ensuring that she feels comfortable. LoBue suggested telling your child something like, You do need to smile and say hello to my boss, but you can stand right next to me and squeeze my hand while you’re doing it. Touch, she said, is a powerful emotional regulation strategy. You can also tell your kid that she doesn’t have to look right into your boss’s eyes — instead, she can look at the bridge of her nose or the bottom of her forehead (your boss will never know the difference).

Try role-playing the interaction a few times. When we were teaching our son how to shake hands with people (did we really used to do that??), we practiced meeting new people over and over and over again. Explain to your kid why they need to do these things, too — that there are certain rules in our culture, and when we don’t follow them, we hurt people’s feelings, even when we don’t mean to.

Kennedy-Moore has a great blog post at Psychology Today about teaching conversation skills to kids if you want more suggestions.

  1. Encourage your child to try new things, but don’t throw them in head first.

When I spoke with Pérez-Edgar and LoBue, they both emphasized the importance of striving for balance when supporting shy kids in situations in which they feel nervous. As I explained in The New York Times:

While shyness is normal and not something to worry about, there are some research-backed strategies for helping your shy kid overcome her fears. One thing parents should not do is pander to their shy kids and protect them from challenging situations. If your 3-year-old refuses to join the other kids in her first ballet class, don’t respond with, “Oh sweetie, I’m so sorry, we’ll never come here again,” and then drop her from the class. Doing this sends the message that your child was right to be terrified — that ballet classes are objectively traumatizing — and it also denies your child the chance to develop the skills she needs to overcome her fears. While the studies in this area tend to be small, multiple papers have found that shy kids fare worse when they have overprotective parents.

The other extreme, however, can be just as bad — you don’t want to roll your eyes and push your terrified kid into the horde of arabesque-ing preschoolers, because doing so will only further distress and overwhelm her, making her more terrified of situations like that in the future. Research has linked these kinds of insensitive responses to an increased risk for anxiety in kids.

Ideally, then, you want to acknowledge your child’s feelings and provide support, but also encourage her to take steps forward. “It’s following the child’s lead and allowing them to go at their own pace, but at the same time, making sure that they actually keep going,” Dr. Pérez-Edgar said.

Remember, too, that progress may be slow, especially after a year of isolation. Kids are socially out of practice, so they may feel extra shy in social situations for a while. Transition back to school might be difficult, too. Expect some bumps, be there to support your kids as they learn to navigate the new normal, and encourage them to take little steps forward when they can.

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