Too shy to shine? Here's how to help your introverted child gain confidence
A guide for anxious parents
“I am very worried. He does not talk to anyone at school and always hides behind me at social gatherings,” says the concerned mother of a two-and-half- year-old boy. A probing call from the playschool had sent her into a frenzy, and she was now contemplating what kind of school would best suit her shy child, wondering if he’d ever make friends, whether he’d hack it in this competitive world. She was battling sleepless nights.
I know a lot of parents, who worry when their child is not like other extroverted children. But, how boring would the world be, if we were all the same?
“Many researchers have wondered if it could be a personality trait but, of course, when you have a shy child, the first thing to do is dig deeper and understand what you are really diagnosing,” says Dr Zirak Marker, a senior child and adolescent psychiatrist and advisor at Mpower.
Seven-year-old Pooja Sagar (name changed) could hardly maintain eye contact. She avoided conversation, and was often accused of being moody, self-absorbed and, sometimes, even rude. Family members would berate her mother, saying, “What kind of a mother are you? How are you bringing up your child?” As she grew and advanced in school, her teacher also noticed her reluctance to take part in group discussions or even class projects. The more her parents forced her into social situations, the further she withdrew from everyone.
“They had to go for a birthday party and she refused to go. They thought it was behavioural, so they pushed her to change her clothes, forced the shoes on and dragged her to the car. When she sat in the car, she threw up. This prompted the parents to seek help,” says Dr Marker.
By the time her parents realised that the problem was far more deep-seated, the shy child had developed anxiety. Her heart rate would go up, she would get cold and clammy, start sweating and throw up.
Dr. Marker says, when dealing with a shy child, it is essential to rule out –
- If the kid is being bullied.
- If he/she is going through trauma at home.
- If parents are extremely authoritative or abusive.
- Has the kid gone through something clinical like clinical anxiety or clinical depression?
Once you have ruled all these out, then you have an introverted child on your hands. This changes the approach entirely. The book The Introvert Advantage— How to survive in an extrovert world shows that introverts and extroverts operate differently at a neurological level. Introverts tend to rely heavily on the parasympathetic nervous system, which uses a rest-and-digest approach to problem solving, whereas extroverts are heavily reliant on the dopamine-regulated sympathetic nervous system which employs a fight-or-flight mode.
“If the kid is just a regular shy child – what really helps is parental counselling to deal with the child. They do grow out of it, though you cannot expect a 100 per cent change from an introvert to an extrovert. The scope of change really depends on how the school and parents handle it,” says Dr Marker.
It’s important to rope in the school and keep them informed about your child’s behaviour. Educate them and it will help them with other children as well. Teachers need to use different strategies to deal with shy kids without putting them on the spot in front of the whole class. When Shradha Shah, mother of two boys, realised her older son was shy and kept to himself, she avoided pushing him into extracurricular activities like elocution and drama, but “encouraged him do things to express himself, things that interested him and helped build his confidence.” Today her healthy and well-adjusted ten-year-old is becoming the leader of the pack in school.
Before parents set about trying to draw their shy child out of their shell, it’s important for parents to first define “shell” for themselves. Dr. Shwetambara Sabharwal, clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, says there is often too much judgment over this natural personality trait. “All of these can also be indications of an intelligent and processing mind. Once we rid ourselves of this biased perception, we can better deal with a child who is quiet, shy or introverted,” she says.
Not every parent has the same approach, nor does every child respond in a similar manner. For Nidhi Sureka, a writer and mother of a 5-year-old girl, gradually putting her child into social settings helped. “At birthday parties, she would just sit in the corner. She wouldn’t even interact with family members or respond to them when spoken to. I knew I had to help her, so I engaged a nanny, took her to more social gatherings and put her in different classes. I gradually did these things so as to not overwhelm her.”
Dr Marker encourages parents to create a system when they are exposing a shy kid to any change, like new places or people, birthday parties or a change of a grade in school.
- Always give enough warning and structure before the exposure.
- Guide them through conversations and narrations.
- Use guided imagery and guide them through what exactly they will be exposed to, that really helps bringing down the anxiety.
“When parents use a guided structure, it will naturally lower the anxiety and prepare the child for what is to come,” he points out.
Saadia Khalifa, an educator with 14 years of experience and currently the co-ordinator at l’Ecole Montessori International School, has a few pointers for worried parents. “We keep an open communication with the parents and stay in the loop with what is going on at home. The school and home environment have to work in tandem,” she says.
Avoid labelling the child saying things like, “Don’t be shy, don’t be silly, don’t be an introvert.” This will only push them to live up it. Instead empathise with the child without comparing, criticising or making light of what they are facing.
If your child shows a special interest in activities like art or music, encourage them. Many kids use art to express themselves when words fail.
For parents who find themselves at sea, there are a few red flags to watch out for before seeking professional help. If the functionality of the child is affected, like not wanting to go to school, lack of sleep, loss of appetite, tearfulness, lack of playfulness, not wanting to meet friends, sudden drop in the usual academic performance, it’s time to make that appointment.
Therapy and counselling apart, your child can thrive with a little bit of patience and understanding. “Giving your kid time and talking to them is the best way forward to help them overcome life’s challenges,” says Shetambara.
So before you try and crack that shell, just take a minute and understand what your child needs. Even a seashore is strewn with different shells and that’s what makes it beautiful.