Here is May’s installment of “Ask Shelby” from Chester County’s own Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Shelby Riley.
My son acts so weird around adults. He’s painfully shy. I’m not sure how to help him. I don’t want him to grow up not knowing how to interact with people. Any suggestions?
Signed, Shooing Away Shy
Dear Shooing Away Shy,
Kids come in all shades of shy, so don’t think your child is “weird.” It’s our job as parents to acknowledge and love all parts of our kids, and to help them socialize while respecting their tendency to be shy. I suggest before a situation where your son might be faced with talking to adults, do some prep with him. Talk about his feelings, what you’ve noticed (in a purely observatory, non-judgmental way) and what good manners look like. Talk about what you’d like to see and why: “I’d like to see you look at the adult, say ‘Hi, nice to meet you,’ loud enough for them to hear. That will make them feel welcome and respected.” Ask what he’d like to do and then see about a way to help him fulfill a reasonable part of the social exchange–maybe just saying ‘Hi’ instead of the whole “nice to meet you” bit. Rehearse beforehand, role-playing both roles so he can feel some mastery on both ends of the exchange. Also talk about what he might need to do to take care of himself after he pushes himself to be polite–will he need some quiet time, some time out of the spot light?
When talking to your son about his shyness, I would use “parts” talk: “I can tell a part of you feels shy and would just like to hide. I also know there is another part of you that handles these situations well. I’ve seen you act brave and say ‘Hi’ even when that shy part was there.” Also to adults: “He might be feeling a little shy. He sometimes feels shy and likes to hide. But he also has a very friendly, outgoing side and I think if we give him a little time he might begin to feel more comfortable and then he’ll warm up.”
It can be tempting to label our kids: “Sorry everyone, he’s shy.” But then our kids tend to live out those narrow labels. The more we can talk about parts of ourselves and that a “part of me feels shy/mad/blah” the more we give voice to who we—and our kids– fully are. It also helps to normalize his feelings of shyness: “We all feel shy sometimes–here’s when I feel shy and here’s what I do to move through it so I can be friendly and polite.” I like the term “move through it” better than “get over it.” “Get over it” feels like we’re never supposed to feel that way, and if we do feel that way, we’re wrong. “Move through it” implies we can’t control what we first feel but that we do have some power to move through the initial feeling and choose to feel something different, or at least act as if we do until the feelings follow.
With a little time and practice, I’m sure your son will learn to manage his shyness so he can interact with adults, and they can get to know what an amazing kid you have.
Shelby Riley, LMFT is the owner of Shelby Riley, LMFT and Associates, LLC, a group family therapy practice in Chester Springs. She is the Past President of the Pennsylvania Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (PAMFT). Remember to check out Shelby’s website www.shelbyrileymft.com for useful information about therapy for individuals, couples, and families. And check out her books on Amazon.