My children and I arrive at a friend’s house and are greeted warmly at the door. I smile and say, “Hi!” My teen and preteen girls chime in with a cheerful “Hello!” and “Good morning!”
Our 7-year-old son slides through the door after me and says nothing.
My friend greets him by name and asks how he is. He takes off his shoes, then turns to ask me a question — totally off-topic and totally ignoring our friend’s greeting. “She said ‘hello’ to you, sweetie,” I say, trying to guide him toward a response. “Hi,” he says quickly, barely glancing up before running off into the house.
I know how it looks. So rude. Hasn’t anyone taught that kid manners?
The problem isn’t that we haven’t taught our kids to be courteous — we have. The problem is that each one of them has been Painfully Shy during their early years. And unfortunately, that shyness comes across as rudeness to many people, especially those who have never been shy themselves.
I understand where people are coming from because, as an adult, I’m not shy. But I can also put myself in my son’s shoes because I used to be just like him.
Unless were a painfully shy child, you probably have no idea how it feels. Imagine you’ve just been thrust onto a stage in front of a huge crowd of people, and you’re supposed to give a speech. But you’re totally unprepared, and everyone is waiting for you to start. And you might be a little naked.
That feeling of discomfort, nervousness, and even terror is what it feels like to a painfully shy child when someone speaks to them and expects them to respond. The racing heart, flushed cheeks, and inability to speak that go along with stage fright happen inside Shy Kids on the regular.
You quickly learn to look somewhat normal while all of this is happening, of course, because god forbid you draw any more attention to yourself by showing how uncomfortable you are. But that just makes the appearing rude thing worse because the speaking thing just never cooperates.
You might muster a barely audible “hi” that takes every ounce of energy you have to spit out. You might lift your hand to wave. But then you make eye contact, which throws you into a tailspin, so you quickly look for some distraction to avoid having to speak. You might giggle or make weird noises or bury your face in your mom’s leg or run off. Anything to avoid the intensity of someone trying to have a conversation with you.
I know this all sounds very dramatic. After all, conversation is kind of a big part of being a human — how hard can it be? But for shy kids, many normal social interactions, especially with new people, really are that dramatic internally. Perhaps they’re hyperaware of their surroundings and need a little time to get their bearings. Perhaps they need to feel out the landscape before being ready to be social. It’s hard to know.
What I do know is that when a kid who is shy seems like they’re ignoring you, they’re not. They’re actually extremely aware of you. They’re just so busy dealing with all of this internal upheaval they don’t have the ability to pull together the social graces to converse with you.
I don’t know what causes shyness. Perhaps it’s a mild form of social anxiety or a hypersensitivity to social energy. I just know that I had it and eventually got over it, outgrew it, or overcame it. Through experience and practice and some gentle coaching, I found my voice. Eventually I realized it was actually much more uncomfortable to be shy than to not be. But it took me until my tween years to really get there.
Our girls have gotten past their extreme shyness for the most part. So I’m confident our son will too, eventually.
One of the best things my parents did was to let me be shy without shaming me for it. As a result, I was able to let it go. So when it comes to parenting my own kids, my husband and I use a similar tactic. We explain to our kids the importance of responding when people are speaking to them, but we are compassionate when they find it difficult. We work on making eye contact and using confident body language (shy kids will naturally tend to look down and try to hide). We’ve practiced with various role-play scenarios at home.
Our kids always feel proud when they are able to introduce themselves with tall shoulders and a big, confident voice. But it doesn’t always work. Some days and some interactions are harder than others. Shyness is a big hurdle to jump over, and it takes time and some stumbles along the way.
One way everyone can help shy kids — whether you understand the shyness or not — is to not pressure them to converse. Smile at them, acknowledge them, but avoid too much direct verbal attention until they feel comfortable. Try saying, “It’s nice to see you!” instead of asking how they are. Then leave it at that. And try not to be offended by their lack of interaction at first. It’s genuinely nothing personal.
Most importantly, please don’t write them off as impolite or ill-mannered. I would have been devastated by that label as a shy-but-eager-to-please child. I know it’s easy to see and label the behavior that way, but if you understand the herculean effort it takes for some kids just to make eye contact and say “hi,” you might see it differently. They’re really not being rude — they’re being shy. There’s a difference.