Why I Stopped Calling My Child Shy and the Steps I’ve Been Taking to Reverse the Effects

Good evening, everyone. Speech-language pathologist/momma here. In an earlier post, I voiced my grief over children being labelled as “shy.” Society is very keen on creating molds and images as to what we “should be,” including what we should be socially. Be socially assertive. Gain energy from being in social situations. Surround yourself with people . Unh-uh. I ain’t buying it. God made us all different from one another on purpose and for a purpose. I do not expect my children to surround herself with people constantly if they do not want to, or always feel like having lengthy conversations. HOWEVER, I do want to supply my children with the tools and courage to handle social situations. If your child was struggling with reading, you would do your best to give them the tools to improve their reading. They may not become an author, but they’re going to have the basics to get by. I personally am not an extrovert, but I do maneuver social situations fairly well and have established healthy relationships. So, I want to give my child the tools and abilities to do the same.

Before I go on, you should know that I am GUILTY of calling my child the same thing in front of her: shy. So if I’m pointing one of my fingers at you, I have four more pointing back to myself. I feel the negative effects of the “shy label” is best explained through personal experiences, so that is what the first part of the post will be. The second part will be ways you can help reverse those negative effects: they will be a combination of ones I have tried that have been successful, and ones that other people have suggested. Stay tuned for a post about how to help your child develop social skills if they do have a diagnosis that makes it difficult for them to socialize. So get ready to judge, everyone, because I’m going to tattle on myself in this post!

My Personal Chronicles of Being the “Shy Child” and What Happened When I Labeled My Own Daughter

I myself, as a child and adolescent, was constantly called “shy.” I used it as a crutch. My kid used it as a crutch, and still occasionally does. Don’t want to ask some other kids if you can play with them? Go get mom, ask her to ask the other kids for you. Mom won’t do it for you? “Shy” kid doesn’t play then, because “shy” kid tells herself she is shy, so what can she do about it? Don’t get a turn at the slide or the game? “Mom! The other kids won’t give me a turn!” Mom says, “Tell them it’s your turn. You need to speak up for yourself.” “Shy” kid goes over to the kids, may whisper, “It’s my turn.” “Shy” kid doesn’t get a turn, because she’s not going to raise her voice or repeat herself again because, hey, SHE IS SHY.

The hard thing about being labeled as the “shy” kid, is when you do feel ready to assert yourself more in social situations, it will feel awkward because everyone expects you to be “shy” and doing something out of the ordinary draws even more attention to you. I have a lingering memory of myself in my head. I was at a birthday party or some type of celebration with my classmates. We were jumping on a trampoline and the longer the party went on, the more wired up we got. I remember getting loud at one point and shouting and making noises kids make and one of my classmates laughed and innocently commented, “You never act like this! You’re always quiet!” It sounds trivial now, but back then, it made me feel embarrassed and self-conscious BECAUSE I behaved in a way that was different from what people expected of me and what I had come to expect of myself. I still remember that kid’s name…

Before realizing the impact the label of “shy” had on me, I would tell others that my oldest child, Eliza, was shy in order to cover for her when adults would try to talk to her or other children would try to play with her. If Eliza hid her face, I would say, “Oh, she’s shy.” About a year and a half ago, we were at a birthday party and one of the kids tried to get my child to play with her. Eliza clung to me and wouldn’t look at the other little girl. In order to spare the other child’s feelings, I said, “She’s shy. Maybe she’ll play with you in a few minutes.” Few minutes passed, things got worse. The other little girl tried to play with my child again. “Eliza,” I said, “play with her. She wants you to play with her.” Eliza responded by taking the toy the little girl handed her, throwing it on the floor, then burst into tears and hid her face. I got pretty mad. On the way home, she received a good tongue lashing. Looking back, I realize how much I was at fault. I had already gave her the “shy crutch” on multiple occasions before that party, as well as AT the party, and I put her on the spot to be a “not shy person,” which at the time, being “shy” was part of her identity. I’m not excusing her behavior of throwing down the toy, but I did not take the time to acknowledge the root cause of her behavior, which yours truly contributed to.

Before Beginning the Steps, Analyze Your Own Actions

In desperate search of finding ways to help my child socially, I found this great website that has 10 EVIDENCE BASED TIPS on how to help your child socially: https://www.parentingscience.com/kids-make-friends.html
Being a speech-language pathologist, I really appreciated the words “evidence based” tips. Basically, research was performed that determined what best helps children be successful socially and these were the top 10 things they found to be the most effective.

So, after reading this article, I realized there a few things in there that I needed to learn to do; basically, I had to somewhat change my mindset and parenting style in order to best hep my child. Here’s where I tattle on myself. I am not proud to say that more often than not, if Eliza did something that she knew was wrong, instead of me calmly engaging Eliza in discussion about what she did was wrong, why it was wrong, and what she was going to do different next time, I immediately showed my anger and sent her to her room or set her in time-out. Now I’m not saying that we no longer give consequences to our children for bad actions, but my husband and I are trying to help Eliza discover what she was thinking and feeling prior to her bad behavior, how she felt after doing the behavior, and how it changed her environment for the time being, in conjunction with the consequences.

How To Do Away with the Shy Child Identity

First, we had a talk. While playing in the sandbox, I told Eliza I had something important to tell her. I told her that she was not shy anymore. It ended up leading to a pretty lengthy conversation about stranger danger, etc. In summary, together we arrived at the conclusion that she would no longer be “shy,” and it’s okay to be nervous to talk to other kids, but we were going to at least try from that point forward to play and talk with other kids, as well as adults that were strangers if momma and daddy was there with her.

Second, we put the “no labels anymore,” into effect immediately. I talked with other caregivers, which was my husband and my parents, who babysat, and asked them to not call her shy anymore and explained my reasoning.

Third, I made no excuses for her in social situations. If someone talked to her and she hid her face, I whispered words of encouragement (I soon learned she did not want me to say them when other people heard) and we stood there until she looked at them and at least said, “Hi.” Took a while at first, but as her confidence increased, so did the length of her conversational exchanges. If at an event where other children were playing, we sat and watched while me or her daddy gently encouraged, and she eventually started joining in play with other children.

Fourth, preparation. If we are going to an event where we know there will be several opportunities for conversations or playing, we talk about what to expect and what we want to try to do.

Fifth, role play. I’ll pretend I’m a little boy or girl Eliza’s age in order to give her practice initiating play and conversations. We do situations where me, “the other child,” is nice and situations where “the other child” does not want to share and is very bossy. We are really focusing on this one right now, I’ll come back to it in a few minutes.

Sixth, after a social encounter is all said and done, sometimes Eliza and I will reflect on it. She’ll tell me what she liked and what she didn’t like. Then we’ll talk about things we do have control over (see the paragraph below to see what I mean by that) and what Eliza would like to try to do differently next time. Whatever that is, we’ll insert that skill into our role play situations. The reason I say SOMETIMES, is because I don’t want to overwhelm Eliza with analyzing everything we say and do in social situations.

A note about what we do have control over: I tell Eliza that she has control over how she reacts to what other people do, as well as control over how she allows people to treat her. For example, if someone tells her she can’t have a turn, she can make a choice. Either she can cry and leave the situation or tell the child again that it is her turn. And that is just the surface of it. Every child is different and with my child, I don’t encourage the choice of crying and leaving the situation because that is one of the things I am helping Eliza address. There is, in fact, nothing wrong with leaving a situation if you feel the other child is not respecting you. We adults do it to each other all the time. However, my child personally leaves the situation feeling upset because in her own words, “But I’m too shy to say that!” We do talk about leaving situations if the other child won’t show respect, but I encourage her to do that AFTER she has spoke up for herself.

What Has Changed

Since implementing the steps and changing our style of parenting (we don’t always remember to discuss), Eliza makes eye contact about 90% of the time, responds verbally 90-100% of the time, and plays or responds to other kids when asked about 70% of the time. Eliza initiates play with other kids when given the opportunity about 20% of the time and initiates conversation with other kids when presented with the opportunity about 40% of the time. When presented with difficult situations, such as others not sharing with her, she speaks up for herself 0% of the time. In summary, the steps have resulted in better responses to others when they initiate social interaction. Things we are going to focus on more is building skills for initiating play and conversation and speaking up for herself when presented with difficult situations.


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