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Overcoming Shyness

Ask any parent what they want for their kids and the list begins: happiness, friends, confidence… There’ll be other things, of course, depending on the parents, but as tribal beings, we want our kids to belong. If not at the centre of the group, then at least within the group.

Which is why shyness can be such a problem. Parents who are confident themselves are at a loss as to what to do with a reserved child. Parents who perhaps suffer from shyness themselves want something different for their children.

But what exactly is shyness? And what can a parent do to help a shy child? Professor Ron Rapee, director of the Macquarie University Anxiety Research Unit (including the Emotional Health Clinic ) answers our questions.

How do I know if my child is shy?

“There are certainly some kids who are withdrawn and don’t mix with other kids much, but they’re happy to play by themselves and do quiet things. That’s perfectly okay. The shy child appears to be somewhat distressed or unhappy about the fact that they’re not mixing.”

When should I worry?

“There are varying degrees of shyness. Everyone is appropriately shy in certain situations, but when it starts to interfere in the child’s life, it’s a problem. The questions you need to ask yourself are whether it’s affecting their life, whether it will affect them in the future, whether they’re having trouble making friends and having their needs met.”

What can I do as a parent to help a shy child – should I interfere?

“It comes back to whether it’s affecting the child’s life. If that’s the case, then a qualified ‘yes’ is the answers. Qualified because one of the problems we see is that parents can be over-interfering. It’s good if a parent can help a child to cope with their anxiety, but not to do it all for them and push them forward too much.”

Can I make things worse?

“You can. Sometimes you can become overprotective, do too much for the child, and the child never learns to stand on his own two feet. If you speak for the child because you think the child will be too upset or nervous to answer, then you simply teach the child that they are incompetent and need mummy or daddy to do it for them.”

Okay, what can I do to help?

“The commonsense one – organise play dates. Get involved in groups or sports activities with other kids. Do it with the child, in a gradual fashion, at a rate the child is happy with and is part of. Encourage the child to do things rather than forcing them. It’s best to do things in a structured way. For example, if you know something’s coming up that they’ll find difficult but will be good for them, take it in steps, familiarising them with the idea.”