Many people don’t believe this, but I was a very shy person until about 10 or 15 years ago. My dad was also shy, but my mom was very gregarious. Mom knew everyone in town and knew how to use those connections. That helped my dad out a lot in his work as a newspaperman. He could bring her to events and meet all the important people. Everyone loved my mom and opened up to her immediately. All Dad had to do was stand there and listen.
Unfortunately, my mother's outgoing personality was very hard on me. I felt as though I was always in her shadow, though she worked very hard at pushing me forward. I don't think she ever realized that the more she pushed, the more frightened I became. Now I work with children, and many of them are shy. Parents have different ways of dealing with their children’s shyness. Some of them push, as my mom did. Some parents do all the talking and interacting for them. Other parents ignore the shyness and let it take its own course.
I always recommend the last tactic. Ignoring the shyness while continuing to support them and encouraging interaction at home seems to be the best way to help. Children act shy because they feel unsafe. We don’t always recognize why they feel that way. Maybe the situation feels completely safe to us, but we are not in their shoes. New situations can be difficult for all of us. Given the chance to come out of their shell on their own, children will often thrive. However, when we constantly rescue them or try to push them, it usually takes them longer to get to that safe feeling. No child will interact with others unless they feel safe, and we can’t talk them out of whatever they are feeling. They absolutely need to come to it on their own.
Emotions are tricky. We sometimes get triggered by something that reminds of a different experience. As parents, we don’t always know what that trigger is or even what the experience was. Maybe your child got startled when he or she was an infant and this new experience reminds them of that time. It may have seemed so minor to you at the time, you don't even remember it, but they do. There could be a similar person or place, even a color or smell that triggers that memory. We will often never know what it is, but we must acknowledge that there is something getting in the way of their feeling of safety and accept it.
It’s important for children to approach others on their own. We can certainly encourage them and model for them, but they must choose for themselves when they are ready to engage. In my classes, I am always open to every child with no expectations. If they want to smile at me or hug me, that’s great. I notice the smiles and smile back. I always accept hugs or high fives, if they’re offered. They are welcome to sit on my lap or ask to be picked up, but I never push myself on them. I do sometimes put them on the spot when we’re choosing activities, but I don’t let them squirm for long, encouraging them to tell their parent instead of me or letting the parent choose for them. Offering them the opportunity to choose is important, even if they’re not ready. And, sometimes they surprise everyone by stepping up to the plate, when they hadn’t previously. Sometimes, it just takes time … their own time.