Adam is very talkative at home, but much more shy in public or around people he doesn’t know. It’s very common for his age (3) and we thought it was adorable when he replied “I’m shy” when a well-meaning bank cashier asked him how he was doing.
I was okay with the fact that he was shy. Sure, it was a bummer when he wouldn’t perform and show what a smart, funny, polite little boy he could be. But it wasn’t a big deal.
It started to get to me, though, when I read a little blurb in a parenting magazine about selective mutism. Basically, a child who is selectively mute is able to speak, and is often very talkative at home, but does not speak in public because of severe social anxiety.
I read up on selective mutism and heard stories of children who didn’t utter a word their entire kindergarten year. Or kids who got on the wrong bus and were too terrified to tell the bus driver what had happened. And kids who couldn’t answer test questions and were inappropriately placed in special ed classes. I also read that selective mutism can get worse as a child ages, not better.
So, I admit, I overreacted and convinced myself he was selectively mute for a few days. (Anxiety runs in my family. Can you tell?) I called my friend, Laura, a speech pathologist. I asked my principal at school what she knew about it. I even asked Adam’s Kindermusik teacher what she thought.
But as I watched him in public for the next few days, I realized that I was totally over-reacting and he was just shy.
However, I was still bothered. I noticed that his shy-ness kept him from participating in activities that he loved. For example, he had been in Kindermusik for over a year with the same teacher. He sang the songs at home daily, but had NEVER sang a single word or answered questions in Kindermusik.
So, I did some googling and decided to try a few things.
- Quit using the word “shy” especially in an apologetic tone. No more, “Sorry, he’s shy.”
- Give him time to answer. This happened often at church…people would say, “Hi, Adam, how are you?” We’d only wait a split second before answering for him. Count to five silently, and if he still doesn’t answer, model an answer, like, “We’re doing well! How are you?”
- Rehearse. In the car, on the way to church, I would model how to answer when peopled said hi. I would say, “I bet when we get to church, someone will say, ‘Hi, Katie, how are you?’ and I will say, ‘Pretty good, how are you?’” Same thing before going into the store. “What will we say to the clerks at the cash register?”
- Praise him for “brave talking.” I explained that sometimes people feel nervous when they talk to people they don’t know well, but they can be brave and talk anyway. Do not ever, ever, never, ever punish your child for being shy, but rather, praise them when they stretch their comfort zone a bit.
- Don’t ask him to perform. Oh my, I was so guilty of this. No more, “Adam, tell Grandpa what we did yesterday.” or “Adam, tell them your funny joke.” This is still a hard one for me.
- Learn friends’ names. We took pictures of his friends at Kindermusik and practiced their names at home. I pointed out familiar faces at church and named them when we saw them.
We also decided to focus our efforts in 3 places:
After just a few weeks, Adam was “brave talking” sooo much more. And now, about 5 months later, he will ask children he doesn’t know to join him in a game at Kids’ Gym. He sings, loudly, at Kindermusik. He told the librarian his name when he was checking out a book. He made a new friend at the McDonald’s play place.
I hope this didn’t sound like I was trying to “fix” a shy child, because I truly wasn’t. He’s still my Adam, and he’ll probably always be slow to warm up to people. But now he has some coping mechanisms for dealing with his social anxiety, and we’re no longer enabling him. I’m proud of his “brave talking” and I hope that by helping him deal with social anxiety early on, it will be less of a problem as he grows.