The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

March 21, 2013

Sarah Coyne: Empowered kids can overcome shyness

By Sarah Coyne
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — At almost 5 years old, my daughter has boundless energy. She dances as she walks. She prances as she runs. She falls into fits of giggling that melt into spasms of hiccups. She is wild. She is silly. She is loud, fast and boisterous.

None of which you would know if you met her in person. Because this sweet girl is very shy.

I used to be certain she'd outgrow it; her big sister's shyness fizzled with time, uncovering an outgoing butterfly. Expecting a similar pattern for the little sister, I've tried not to worry about her shyness.

While there have been times I've silently wished she would step out of her shell, shyness remains a huge part of who she is. Instead of ignoring it, expecting her to cope in a world of apprehensions without assistance, I've tried to give her plenty of tools.

To prepare our kids for a world of strangers and manners, parents need to help children work through shyness rather than dropping them in the deep end with each new experience. Fears won't be overcome that way Ñ they'll be proven correct.

If our focus remains on the child's needs instead of our own expectations Ñ especially if our own personalities as parents are outgoing Ñ we can help provide an environment in which our shy kids can feel secure and empowered. Here are a few ways we can help our kids overcome shyness:

Drop the label. Don't describe your child's reluctance by using the word "shy." Even if it's an accurate explanation, it proclaims that shyness is something shameful to be apologized for.

Instead, talk about readiness if you need to explain anything at all. If the rest of the party is starting a game but your child is still hiding on your lap, it's OK to say "she'll play as soon as she's ready." This lets her think ahead to a time when she will be ready. It assumes encouragement rather than shame.

Don't disregard their feelings. Avoid the dreaded "Stop worrying! This is no big deal!" That sounds more like judgment than reassurance.

Acknowledge the discomfort and remind them of a time they've overcome worry. "You sometimes feel afraid to walk into a room of people you don't know very well. You like to stay close to mama. But remember how many people you said hello to while you held my hand at church last week? Before long, you had chatted with dozens of people!"

Make preparations. Shy kids can be calmed by knowing what to expect. If they can picture the building, the group of kids or the doctor's face, they can begin managing their surroundings before the actual event.

Take your child on a tour of the dentist's office a few days before her first visit. Walk her around the new school she'll be attending. List some possible ways to say hello if she'd like to make a new friend. Role-play what it sounds like to say thank you for a party invitation. New things won't feel so new if there's a bit of immersion.

By watching and listening to our kids, we can make plans that will encourage confidence. It may be as simple as arriving early so they aren't plunged into a full room all at once. It may be as complex as taking months to work up the courage for a play-date.

With support and affirmation, our shy kids can grow to acknowledge and manage their feelings. They can overcome shyness one step at a time.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog,