Our 10-year-old daughter is painfully shy around others. She’s quiet but still a lot of fun at home with us and her two younger brothers, but at church she’s very shy and has a hard time making new friends, and her teachers tell me she’s the same at school. She sometimes looks away when adults try to speak to her, any gentle nudges from her dad and I to “join in the fun” cause her to retreat further. She's been this way since she was small, but I thought she might grow out of it. How can we help her open up and make friends?
Shyness is much more prevalent than you might think. Since the early 1970’s the percentage of adults in the United States reporting that they are chronically shy to the degree that it has at some time presented a problem in their lives is approximately 40%.
The simplest definition of shyness is a degree of fear or anxiety being around other people, especially non-family members, that manifests itself in either a hesitancy to or an inability to join in new activities and make new friends. Shyness and social anxiety are common experiences at all ages for many people. Shyness isn’t all bad. In fact, sometimes a degree of shyness can serve a protective function. Sometimes it’s wise to evaluate a social situation before just jumping in.
It’s most helpful to view shyness on a continuum from healthy to unhealthy. It becomes unhealthy when it impairs a persons ability to engage and cultivate healthy relationships. The more it moves towards the unhealthy end of the continuum the more it may be complicated by fears and/or a social anxiety that may require professional care.
It’s also important to distinguish shyness from introversion. While extroverts are energized by people introverts can be overwhelmed by too many people. Introverts tend to prefer solitary to social activities but at the same time can be very comfortable in social situations. While introversion and shyness can be related, those on the unhealthy end of the shyness continuum tend to fear and even avoid social encounters and it sounds like this is where your daughter is at.
How can you her help her open up and make friends? That’s a difficult question given the many variables in treating shyness. It’s vital that you gain a better understanding of her shyness so that your well-intentioned attempts to help her “open up” doesn’t increase her pressure for social performance and drive her the other direction thus making the problem worse.
Before doing anything different make sure she continues to know that she is loved and valued and not made to feel any more “weird” than she might already feel. Take a lesson from Barnabas and be parents who look for opportunities to encourage her. When you pray with her thank God for her uniqueness and her strengths. Compliment her. Engage a couple of trusted friends to pray for you as you seek to help her grow.
What might be contributing to her shyness? Shyness can be caused by wide ranger of factors including negative family interactions, frequent parental criticism, shaming experiences, stressful life events, major moves, public embarrassment for poor performance, an experience of being bullied or major emotional losses.
Learn all you can about shyness doing a web-search on the word shyness. There are a wealth of resources including popular articles, research and information on numerous shyness clinics. Talk with other parents who have children that either are shy or have dealt with their shyness and discover what they learned. Ask yourself what’s different about the times when she exhibits less shyness. Encourage her to share some of her daily relational interactions and how she felt about them. Make your home a safe place to discuss awkward or painful emotions.
Unhealthy shyness often involve significant levels of fear and/or social anxiety and you may find it helpful to have one or two sessions with a licensed counselor with special training with children in this area to assess the nature of the problem to assure the steps you take are appropriate for the uniqueness of who your daughter is. Pray hard, get wise counsel and then take one step at a time. With care and prayer the prognosis is good.