Thursday, September 22, 2011

Stop Calling My Child Shy

If one more person tells Daniel or me that Sarah is shy I am going to scream. It's amazing, because the people who say this are the complete opposite of this temperament and; therefore, judging her because she is not as talkative or outgoing as they are.

For people who know Sarah, really know her, know that she is plenty loud and boisterous when she is comfortable with the people she is with. I consider her approach with people to be her defense mechanism kicking in early. She is not openly accepting of people, especially strangers, right away until she feels comfortable with them or the other person's eagerness to hold, hug, kiss or play with her dissipates. (The New Yorker inside of me is happy that she is like this. In many instances, I am completely fine with this demeanor and somewhat relieved by it too.)

It's interesting to see children be able to sense another person's discomfort. When this happens, in the case of Sarah, she will not gravitate to these types of people, until they become more at ease or stop trying too hard.

According to parenting expert Amy McCready, Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and the author of If I Have to Tell You One More Time (Tarcher/Peguin, August 2011) "we should never label our children as being a certain way." She further emphasizes that by labeling our children they will grow into these temperaments and may strongly start identifying themselves with these traits, when in essence they may not be an accurate depiction of who they are and how they act.

Just because a child is not as talkative or sometimes hides behind someone familiar (i.e., mommy or daddy) doesn't fully mean he or she is shy. Just because Sarah may hide behind me on occasion when she meets someone new or hasn't seen a family member or friend for a while does not make her shy. She needs time to adjust, and to process her surroundings. She takes her time to acclimate to the environment around her on her terms and not on the terms of others.

As a parent who often worries about the safety of her child for obvious reasons, it's this behavior that I admire much about Sarah. She is cautious and not one to run into everyone's arms with hugs and kisses right away without time in between to settle in and get acquainted.

Large gatherings and groups of people can be an overwhelming setting for children, adults too.

I think of an experience Daniel brings up every year around the holidays when family gets together for dinners and gatherings. He jokes and says, "at your family's house there could be 10 people and 20 conversations." He's right, as I grin writing this. It's true. What can I say? In instances like this, people like Sarah, and Daniel as well, don't feel the need to be part of the conversation and much rather prefer one-on-one communication in a much more intimate setting. They also don't feel the need to add yet another conversation to the mix or compete for the attention and; therefore, tend to appear more quiet and reserved. Sometimes this behavior is perceived as disinterest by others.

Once the playing time begins and another child is involved, then Sarah gets more involved, but on her terms and when she is ready. I have learned not to push her to do anything. I try hard to encourage her to try news things but at the pace that is acceptable for her. As parents, we want to motivate our children but certainly cannot push them to do things they are not comfortable with or which may cause them great stress.

Through McCready's Positive Parenting courses and books she provides valuable tips and approaches to help guide parents. She recently sent out an email tip sheet, to her members in which I am one of them, with the following information specifically about not labeling children and the timing was apropos for this blog post. I asked her permission to share that very information here with you.

What McCready is emphasizing is that we need to be understanding of our children's needs to help them establish coping skills so they do not feel pressured to step into situations that may cause undue stress or anxiety when pushed. It's certainly important for parents to work with their children, as Daniel and I have been doing with Sarah, to help them gain comfort.

We have heeded much of McCready's advice.

The following are McCready's exact pointers on how to help our children to successfully reduce anxiety in social situations:
  • Don't "label" your child as shy or let others label her. When we label children as “shy”, they are more likely to “assume” that label and act “shy.” When Mrs. Jones asks your child a direct question and she hesitates to answer, don’t say, “She’s just shy.” And don’t let Mrs. Jones label her by saying “Are you shy today, dear?” When others try to label your child, simply say…”No she’s not shy, just not terribly talkative today.” Or better yet, role play with your child what she will say… “I don’t care to talk today.” While this may be embarrassing for you, it’s better than having your child hide behind you or having you label her as “shy.”
  • Practice social skills. Role play talking to people and looking into their eyes. Encourage your child to focus on the color of the person’s eyes, as this makes your child appear more interested and confident. Practice using a “big” voice when you meet someone new and extending a hand for the other person to shake. Practice the words to use when meeting new friends... “Hi, I’m Emily – what’s your name?” Some children don’t feel comfortable in new situations or with meeting new people, but role playing these important social skills can increase their confidence – even for very young children.
  • Arrive early for parties or gatherings. This gives your child time to warm up and connect with one or two people before others arrive. (WE PRACTICE THIS ALL THE TIME ESPECIALLY WITH KID PARTIES, AND IT REALLY WORKS)
  • Don’t rescue. When your child refuses to answer, don’t coax or answer for her. Just continue on with your conversation and trust that your child will jump in when ready.
  • Don’t pressure! If your child feels that you are pressuring him to act in a certain way, it will likely escalate to a power struggle. He may “act shy” just to prove that you can’t “make” him talk.
  • Don’t over-protect. Expose your child to as many new experiences as possible. – but don’t pressure him to “perform.”
  • Use Family Meetings as an opportunity to get outside the comfort zone. Kids as young s four can take the role of “Meeting Leader” which offers practice speaking up and taking a leadership role in a safe, comfortable situation.
We have to remind ourselves as parents that we certainly don't like others telling us what to do. So, for our children, we need to be extra mindful of this as well for them. Kids don't need to be involved in lots of activities or have an abundance of playmates to have a good time.

For those who know Sarah and spend quality time with her know that she is incredibly bright, boisterous, energetic and playful, and more responsive to get involved once she is comfortable.

Sarah decides who and what makes her comfortable. What can I say? She knows what she wants. I can't argue that. I just have to be mindful of what makes her comfortable and not assume that she will gravitate as easily to situations as other kids might or as quickly as I would hope. She needs time to adjust.

I am not suggesting that we let our youngsters dictate what they want to do and who to do it with but instead to give them the necessary space to keep them comfortable but also with encouragement to get involved, make friends and meet new people.

I am always so impressed by how well Sarah can read people and their emotions or feelings. She's extremely empathetic. However, if a person were to try too hard to get Sarah's attention or affection she may be, and most likely will be, apprehensive. Some people have a calmer, less requesting nature that Sarah is more likely to gravitate too.

Being with Sarah is an investment in time for her. It's as if her trust needs to be earned. This is not her being shy. This is her being smart and cautious. And, I am very well okay with this.

I know that I am being defensive here when I say this, but the more that people call Sarah shy, the more she is going to start seeing herself that way. and I really want it to stop. I need to help make it stop.

Daniel and I certainly continue to work with Sarah to help her become more comfortable with people and in certain situations. We cannot force a child to do something they don't want to do, such as hug or kiss someone or expect them to go play with a certain kid or adult when it is requested of them. They have to do it on there own at their own pace.

How many times have we as parents experienced the beginning of a playdate or visit with friends or family starting off a bit awkward with our children taking time to get comfortable and settle in to then find later in the visit that it's impossible to tear them away from the fun they are having?

Children make their own choices as to what makes them comfortable. As adults, we many times do the same thing. We have to respect that. So, let's please be cognizant and mindful of the next time we see a quieter than usual child or one that is seemingly more cautious and not say he or she is shy. Let's instead give them the space to get comfortable, acclimate and settle in to the situation.

Think about how we feel when we go to a party or unfamiliar gathering. Some of us have no problem going up to people to introduce ourselves and mingle. Some of us do struggle with this and sometimes, as adults, need a drink or to see a familiar face to ease into the situation. The same holds true for kids (at least not the drinking part) at family gatherings and big events with lots of people and extraneous noise.

So, rather than labeling a child that seems quiet, reserved or who takes time to adjust as someone who is shy, instead give them their space to settle in and get comfortable and they will shine through.

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