No. 15 – Little Miss Shy

‘I never wish to offend, but I am so foolishly shy that I often seem negligent, when I am only kept back by my natural awkwardness’.

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

I was incredibly shy as a child, painfully so. I hated having to speak to any adult I didn’t know, and wasn’t particularly happy about talking to those I did know either. To be honest, I wasn’t just timid around adults, I was the same with other children. Large groups were unbearable for me. My worst nightmare was having to walk into a room full of people and them all turning to look at me. My face is burning up now just thinking about it!

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Just about daring to look at the camera, aged 3. I have the same expression on all childhood pictures.

I can remember being extremely reluctant to speak to my primary school teacher when I started school at the age of almost 5, and despite having read and re-read my reading book multiple times, I daren’t ask her if I could change it. When she finally got around to listening to me read (she worked her way through the class by surname, so I was towards the end), it was obvious I’d learned the book off by heart by reading it so many times. I was so embarrassed and frustrated with myself, but still I remained apprehensive about talking, and avoided situations where I might be forced to speak out at all. This rigid way of the teacher working has obviously had a lasting impact on me, as I can recall how I felt over 30 years later! I had a small group of friends all through school, who I could be my quiet little awkward self with. This preference for small groups has stayed with me into adulthood. I contrast this to my youngest sister who was part of a much bigger friendship group throughout school and was way more confident as a child. She’s now a head teacher. Loves the sound of her own voice and all that. That’s self-confidence and brilliance in spades, right there!

I had dancing lessons from the age of 6 and my shyness and introverted personality stopped me from putting myself forwards for any leading roles. Sure, I did great, successfully auditioning for roles in the chorus line in pantomimes at Christmas time, but never dare to chuck my hat in for the big roles. I remember my teacher taking me to the side one day and asking me to audition for a role which involved singing and dancing. I shook my head and turned away, eyes filled with tears, so self-conscious and embarrassed by how fearful I was of being noticed.

Even now, as a 38 year old mum of 3 boys, I still shy away from and get anxious about many social occasions, and haven’t got over my fear of walking into a room full of people. My partner is the complete opposite and feels comfortable talking to anybody and ‘working the room’ at a social event. In these situations I feel somehow paralysed, as if I’ve lost the physical ability to speak. I have an excruciating fear of saying the wrong thing or saying nothing at all, leading to a long stretched out silence. This comes across as me being aloof, rude and disinterested. 

I prefer to arrive early everywhere, much to my partners’ annoyance, to avoid having to make an entrance. And with 3 boisterous boys, believe me when I say, we are very capable of making an entrance wherever we go. I’ve just about got over my fear of the playground, after doing the school run for the past five years. Pathetic, hey?

Playground fear is definitely a thing!

I do challenge myself on occasion and put myself into situations where I have to speak to people I don’t know, facing my fears if you will. At work, I was always capable of pulling on my professional face, was confident and poised when delivering training sessions, presenting to clients and conducting interviews. Since I’ve become a stay at home mum, I feel like the old insecurities have crept in again, as my world has shrunk a little. My partner works away a lot, and my days often consist mainly of speaking to a 10 month old baby who isn’t the world’s greatest conversationalist. And when all you’ve achieved in a day is keeping you and the kids alive, there’s not much to talk about when you actually do see another adult who want to chat! And all of my friends have ‘proper’ jobs, where they actually get to do important stuff day in, day out. I volunteer one morning a week which is extremely rewarding, but also a great way to challenge myself and help tackle my shyness head on. I work in an advisory role, and never know who is going to come through the door or what they’ll want to talk about, so I need to be open and ready to talk, no matter how difficult the conversation may be.

The thing that’s most galling in all of this, and the reason I’m baring my soul, is that my boys are now showing the same levels of shyness that I felt as a child, and I really want to break the cycle and help them to become more confident in themselves. I asked my Mum if I’d always been shy as a child, and she said I had, and that I’d sought solace in books, always having one with me, like a security blanket. She recalled a time that my photo had appeared in the local paper, taken at the opening of a new playground, and the photographer had captured me climbing up the stairs on the slide, book tucked under my arm, just in case. Those of you who know my boys will know that this is exactly what my eldest is like. He would happily shut himself away from the world, immersed in a stack of books, only pausing to eat and sleep.

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I sought solace in books, always having one with me, like a security blanket

Both him and his younger brother clam up when an adult speaks to then. My eldest can come across as rude at times because he becomes monosyllabic around his friends’ parents and other adults who speak to him, but I know it’s just shyness as I was exactly the same. My middle son still cowers behind my legs at nursery drop off, barely whispering, ‘good morning’, in response to his lovely teachers’ welcome. And it’s not that he doesn’t like nursery; he loves it, and moans at me for picking him up early all the time. It’s the same at his football training. He morphs from a loud, confident, self assured child, into a meek and withdrawn little mouse when his coaches speak to him. It drives my partner crackers! And my youngest has started burying his head, adorably I may add, into my shoulder whenever anyone catches his eye, let alone speaks to him. We’re becoming a household of introverted nervous wrecks!

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Please don’t look at me!

Time to try and address the problem I think. It’s not that I’m trying to change the boys’ personalities, just that I don’t want their shyness and lack of self-confidence to hold them back at school, or in the future. By being happy to simply sit back and observe, and not put themselves forward for things, I don’t want them to miss out on experiences and opportunities which may otherwise pass them by. I don’t want them to impose limits on themselves and what they can achieve, in the way I did, by being afraid to stand up first.

I’ve been researching how to help shy children to grow in confidence and there are a few key pointers, which I thought I’d share in case they are useful to you or somebody you know:

  • Don’t label your child as shy – instead put a positive twist on this – ‘Milo likes to watch others playing a game before he decides to join in’
  • Avoid dismissing children’s fears – instead accept and support their feelings and help your child to work through them – ‘it’s ok to feel nervous, but I’m right here watching…’
  • Normalise their fears by referring to times you also feel unsure in situations – ‘when I was little I used to feel a bit nervous in my swimming lessons too…’
  • Model interactions with people you don’t know. Introduce yourself, ask for help, compliment people and thank them for their time – ‘thank you Mrs Bus Driver, have a lovely rest of your day!’
  • Role-play situations with your child that they may find daunting to help them think through how they may act and what they may say – ‘when your teacher asks you what you did at the weekend, maybe you could say you had fun playing with your cousins at the park’
  • Hide any doubts you may have about your child’s ability to cope. Confidently assert you have faith in their abilities – ‘i know you’ll do great at nursery drop off today’
  • Don’t step in to do things for your child or speak for them. Let them learn to handle situations through trial and error.
  • Help to boost self esteem by praising specific behaviours that you value as important- ‘you did really well thanking Jessica’s Mum for having you over to play, that was very kind’

I’m committing these tips to my (slightly frazzled) memory and making a conscious effort to encourage my boys to feel confident in group situations, to back themselves more, and to get over their fear of speaking to adults. If I approach you with them in tow, and start overdoing it a bit with the compliments, remember I’m trying to model confident interactions, so please don’t freak out and back away from me!

And now, just to finish, a few words in praise of introverts. In a world which is becoming ever more loud, expressive, instantaneous and booming, increasingly driven by social media, maybe something can be learned from those who sit back, listen, observe and take their time to get involved (key attributes for writers and scientists, amongst others after all!) We are, sometimes, the great thinkers of the world.

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…maybe something can be learned from those who sit back, listen, observe and take their time to get involved

More often than not though, I’m desperately trying to remember if I turned the oven off before I left the house, rather than weighing up the meaning of life! I guess the flipside of this Internet driven world is that it’s even easier for introverts to hide themselves away, working, shopping, paying bills, banking, socialising and ‘chatting’ all online. In theory, you’d never need to speak to a person in real life again. That would be my 5 year old self’s idea of heaven!

If you’ve successfully helped your child to overcome their shyness, please let me know what worked for you. I’d love to hear from you!

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