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By “Today” contributor
TODAY
updated 7/13/2006 6:06:32 PM ET 2006-07-13T22:06:32

One of the most touching types of kids I see in my practice is the painfullyshy. These kids are often so afraid of peer rejection that they assume anything they say to others will be perceived as inept, so they often go through the school day tongue-tied and anxious. Many of these children are lonely because making friends often involves taking risks — something shy people just don’t do well. It’s a vicious cycle: they’re afraid to talk to peers, so they present themselves as awkward and different from others. Some shy kids are perceived as snobbish, while others are seen as uninvolved and perhaps a little strange.

How can a parent help? First, understand that your child is most likely timid by nature, has always been and most likely will always be somewhat uncomfortable in new situations. Help him or her to feel more comfortable by arranging low-risk play dates (with a child that the teacher feels would be a good fit) or involvement in outside clubs or activities. Encourage your child to “keep things in perspective.” Timid kids have a tendency to assume that anything that is said about them by peers is either critical or negative. According to Dr. Ward Swallow, author of “The Shy Child: Helping Children Triumph Over Shyness,” there are five ways to help your young child to feel more comfortable with others.

Helping young children overcome shyness:


Helping older children overcome shyness:
For the older child, I often suggest behavioral techniques to help parents assist their children with peer-fears and social anxieties.

At times I’ve had grade school, middle school and even high school children place 10 pennies in their left pocket, and each time that they say, “Hi, how’re you doing?” (or some other greeting) to another child in the hallway or classroom, they move one penny to the pocket on the right side. At the end of the school day, if all 10 pennies have been moved over, they receive praise and perhaps a treat (or allowance) from mom or dad for trying so hard to overcome their fear.  Often, saying, “Hi,” and speaking with other kids quickly becomes much less scary, and the child is on his way toward lessening his social fears.

Want some other behavioral tips for helping your somewhat shy or timid child to mature into someone who’s more comfortable within their own skin? Take a look at the following examples of kids whom I’ve worked with in my clinical practice:

Behavior management approaches to helping the shy child
Shyness has a strong genetic basis; many parents can tell if their youngster is shy by three or four months of age. It is one of the core traits that can color one’s personality throughout life. But by using behavior management techniques parents can encourage their shy kids to slowly take minimum social risks. And, success breeds success. Once the child feels comfortable in one social situation, he or she is emotionally available to try another. I accept and respect shyness, but I feel it’s important to help socially anxious kids learn the tricks of “appearing” less fearful. Many have learned to “faked it until they make it,” motivated by a behavior management reward program.

Timid kids generally describe themselves as “invisible.” Classmates wouldn’t care if they didn’t show up for lunch, and nobody would notice if they missed school for a week. It’s interesting, though, that when surrounded by family or close friends, these same kids can relax and display their true personalities. Once the social anxiety disappears, they are often seen as witty, creative, and compassionate people. But when faced with a new group of peers, they may revert to the quiet, awkward youth, afraid of being noticed and perhaps made fun of.

Let me tell you about one client I worked with — Alicia, a 16-year-old high school sophomore, could have been a poster child for extreme shyness. Although a diligent student with excellent grades, she, like most shy kids, described herself to me as almost invisible. She often skipped lunch to avoid eating alone, preferring to spend the period in the library. Her parents tried to interest her in joining school clubs and community activities, but Alicia was a professional “yes, but” person — she had an excuse for avoiding any new social activity. I, too, tried to talk Alicia into joining activities, but shyness, like most inborn personality traits, generally does not respond readily to traditional talk therapy. I can’t convince a teen that she is pretty, witty, or even interesting. After all, I’m just an adult, and what else am I expected to say?

We have yet to find a cure for shyness, mainly because it’s a highly genetic personality trait, so deeply ingrained that environmental manipulation is often only partially successful. What leads to changes in this area are successful involvements with peers. If her peers began to accept Alicia, then she would begin to accept herself — to feel more comfortable being with others and perhaps to take some social risks.

Shyness can be viewed as a social phobia, and to break any phobia the person has to do the opposite of what she naturally wants to do when facing the feared situation. The claustrophobic slowly places herself in smaller environments, the bridge phobic gradually drives over increasingly longer bridges, and the social phobic slowly places themselves in increasingly more anxious social situations. These gradual progressions slowly allow the individual to deal effectively with greater levels of anxiety, eventually accomplishing their goal.

Alicia, her parents, and I set up a “fear gauge,” with joining a new group, such as a church youth group or community service organization, gauged as a five; joining a school club, with peers that she would also see during the school day, gauged as a 10; and phoning a good acquaintance as a one. They were to fill in the remainder of the scale at home when they had more time together to do so.

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Alicia was given the task of tackling the items on her fear gauge one by one. If she didn’t try to use the social skills I taught her, return phone calls, or sign up for a meeting, or if she directly refused to tackle a reasonable situation, she was given demerits, leading to negative consequences such as losing her daily allowance or use of electronics. Since watching television and listening to music were the mainstays of her free time, Alicia was motivated to avoid losing these activities. She also wanted to keep her allowance and clothing credits so she could buy more clothes — in her mind, to fit in better with the other kids. Alicia also received demerits for avoiding eye contact, a trait almost always found in the very shy.

Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was the text for our anti-shy effort, and I role-played many of Carnegie’s ideas with Alicia. We discussed using other people’s names as often as possible, questioning them about their interests (which to her was much easier to do than talk about her own interests), and trying to make other people feel important. When she had the opportunity to use these skills and chose not to, her parents gave her demerits, but also praised her when she did take social risks.

The family came back three weeks after beginning the program. I wish I could say that Alicia had made great strides and was comfortable with peers, but she wasn’t quite there yet. She continued to receive demerits for missed social opportunities. Some things had improved — she looked right at me as she spoke and seemed to be more vibrant and happy. Alicia had joined her church youth group and began to attend meetings regularly. The leader had reported to her parents that at first she was quiet and appeared uneasy, but over the three weeks she became more involved. She even quit complaining about having to go to the group on Sunday evenings.

Alicia will most likely never be student class president or totally comfortable in new situations. But because of the behavioral skills she is learning, she will come across to others as more interested (and therefore appear to be more interesting herself) and less anxious.

Shyness and timidity are not gender-specific — that is, both boys and girls seem to suffer equally. Let’s take a look at Greg, a handsome young man who had extreme difficulty taking social risks and getting involved with others. First, here’s what Greg’s mother observed:

School was challenging for my son, Greg, even from the early years. His immaturity in size and social skills, along with his learning difficulties, caused him to be withdrawn around his peers. (Fortunately, his verbal acuity and good manners endeared him to adults, so he has not been without any self-confidence.)

The family moved away from his home state when he was thirteen and in middle school— definitely a difficult time for all children. Because the public school in our new town had large classes, we decided to send Greg to a small private school. There were only eighteen students in his grade. But his lack of adaptability, learning problems, and social immaturity made seventh and eighth grade very stressful. He enjoyed school and was generally happy with his teachers, but he was visibly strained at the end of the school day from the teasing by his “enemies,” as he called them. He was afraid to leave his family for any overnight activities, such as field trips or camp.

High school was a friendlier place for Greg, and easier academically, too, thanks to a special learning disabilities class there. Still, Greg was reluctant to attend any activities outside of school. We sought Dr. Peters’s help.

Dr. Peters convinced Greg to try managing the high school football program. As a result, he gained respect and recognition in school. The players and cheerleaders recognized him in the halls, and for the first time he was invited to a party. On his own he chose to continue to manage the football team, and now as a junior he plans to manage the soccer team as well.

Greg is still socially immature, but he has friends at school. He is considering attending school social events, but he makes no promises. He recently went on a three-day field trip with his classmates and had an “awesome” time. He is active at church, was a volunteer in the summer at a local hospital, and has a part-time job. At seventeen he has finally caught up with his peers physically. He is still shy, and tends to hang around at the edges of activities, but at least he is there, and he has a good time.

Now, let’s take a look at what Greg had to say about his experience with shyness, timidity and social issues:

Back in middle school, I was a social disaster. Barely anybody was a true friend, and for the most part I felt alone. I remember when I was at our eighth grade graduation I was worried about what might happen if I sat with my classmates. I tried to sit only with a friend and my family who came to help celebrate our graduation, but they convinced me to sit with the other kids. It wasn’t such a bad idea. They really didn’t bother me at all. The graduation party was great.

When I was entering high school, I was worried about the new surroundings, but most important of all, the kids. I hoped I could start fresh, and I knew everybody around me was anxious to get to know some people for possible friendships. I was shy at first, but everything seemed to get off to a good start. The kids were pretty nice to me. Of course, there were some disagreements, but it wasn’t even half as bad as it was at middle school.

But by spring my parents were bugging me to get involved in some-thing after school. I still hadn’t found anything. I felt I wasn’t good enough for any of the sports, and I wasn’t interested in anything else. Dr. Peters convinced me to help our varsity football team. That’s when I got pretty popular with my peers. I gained respect from the team and the cheerleaders. I remember times when they would clap for me when I came into the locker room. That made me feel wanted. That was new for me!

I also found that going to the football games was extremely fun and entertaining. I felt more connected to my school. My social life got a whole lot better — I got invited to parties for the first time since our move. I still get nervous about going, but it feels good to be invited.

Shy kids like Alicia and Greg can benefit from behavior management systems. Indeed, most timid children benefit from the structure and motivators that such a program provides. Rules and consequences are clear, and it’s easy for kids to make the decision to remain the same or try a new behavior. There’s no guarantee that the appropriate decision will be made, but at least the child has the clear option to choose which way to go and the knowledge of what consequences (positive and negative) will occur.

Keep in mind that timid kids tend to grow to be thoughtful and levelheaded adults.  They are cautious and think before acting.  Often, shy children become excellent observers of people and situations, and therefore tend to be sensitive, caring, compassionate—with the uncanny ability to understand others’ feelings.  So, respect your child’s nature as you work to help him or her to feel more comfortable in social situations.

Dr. Ruth Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” For more information you can visit her Web site at www.ruthpeters.com. Copyright ©2006 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.

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