The Shy Factor

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I know the posture well.  Brows raised, eyes wide.  Head barely peeking out from behind my leg.  Little arms wrapped so tightly around my thigh it’s near impossible to break the hold.  This is my three year old being shy.  This was him at soccer practice a few Saturdays ago when we encountered a chaotic swarm of unfamiliar three and four year olds.  The kids were hyped up and squealing with energy as they awaited the start of practice.  Tiny legs jumping, bodies spinning, and hands high-fiving their energetic coaches.  My little guy loves soccer and loves other kids, but warming up to chaotic environments, especially with unfamiliar people, can take him some time.  Watching the others and observing the crazy of it all, he felt intimidated.  Instinctively, he clung to my body and hid his face.

My child was in good company, there were a few other hesitant kids on the sidelines.  Not actually standing on the sidelines but clinging to legs or held in the arms of parents who wore faces of frustration as they negotiated, bribed, even fear mongered to get their kids on the field.   “If you play soccer we can go out for ice cream.”  “No snack or sips from your water bottle unless you exercise first.”  “I will give back the team t-shirt if you don’t actually play.”

Shyness and the entire early childhood experience of emotion are new territory for me.  Do we gently encourage our kids to join when they’re feeling timid?  Manually peel them from our bodies and force the issue?  Provide them some space to watch from afar until they are more comfortable?

Practice was short so I chose the “rip-off-the-Band-Aid” tactic.  I offered a few words of encouragement and began prying him from my body.  This only caused him to cling tighter and panic.  “I don’t WANT to play… I don’t even LIKE soccer.” The more I pushed, the more frustrated we both became.  Practice started, I gave up, and we watched.

As I stood there, seeing my kid struggle, my frustration transitioned to heaviness: I felt sad that he was missing out.  His shy nature can be a really beautiful thing: it makes him a cautious, but also really thoughtful, kid.  Being slow to engage allows him to make unique observations, noticing the details of the bigger picture.  He often tries to learn everything he can about a situation before he joins, giving him a preparedness other children may not have.  I get that.  This particular Saturday, however, felt different.  His emotion enveloped him so fully he was paralyzed.  I wouldn’t have cared so much with an activity he was less keen on, but soccer?  HE was the one who asked ME to sign him up!

In this I realized I was lacking the tools necessary to encourage my son well or to help him make sense of his hesitation.  Unfortunately, my strong push didn’t inspire courage; rather, my kid became more entrenched – adamant that he, under no circumstance, would join the team.  And he didn’t.

The next day we took a family outing to the library.  The last thing I had the time (or patience) for was reading one of those parent strategy books, but I needed help and was hopeful there would be easy to read stories, even picture books, on emotions in the children’s section.  I was in search of tales that would normalize the experience of feeling shy while also providing strategies, through clever storytelling, for working through troubling emotions without feeling overwhelmed.

Turns out, reading is genius!  The moment we got home we snuggled on the couch and poured over our borrowed books.  My kid quickly latched onto stories of characters he could relate to. There was Edmund the shy squirrel who decided to take a chance and go to a party, Migs the timid mouse who had to navigate his nerves as he started at a new school, and other books that talked generally about feelings such as shyness, courage, and confidence.  “Mama, Edmund squirrel was really glad he went to the party right?” “If I’m feeling shy at soccer I could try smiling instead of putting on an angry face.” “Maybe I could ask other kids their names and we could be friends.”  The books helped him feel known, understood, and validated – in ways I had failed to do.  They also provided strategies to push through the uncomfortable.

Last week he went back to soccer practice, prepped with a pep talk and new insights from reading his books.  My husband accompanied him and I waited, anxiously, to hear how things went.  My phone rang just as practice ended and I was eager to hear his sweet little voice through the phone: “Mama, I was brave AND courageous today!” “Does that mean you played soccer with all the kids?” “Yep, and I REALLY like soccer!”  “Buddy, I am SO proud of you.”  He went on to talk with me about being on defense, why you can’t use your hands in soccer, and how he made “so many” goals.  The chatter lasted minutes and I smiled till my cheeks hurt.  I was delighted, sure, but (being honest) I was also really relieved.

Was it the books? Time? Better sleep the night before? Who knows. But my guess is the library books helped, at least a little.  In fact, this is a studied phenomenon.  Kids who are read to and engaged in discussions of children’s books with emotional content have increased emotional competence.  It makes sense.  Further, reading also helps children develop their language skills.  Having the words to describe an emotion can be half the struggle when you’re small.

Today I’m feeling thankful for children’s authors and my well stocked local library.  I’m also feeling inspired to (finally) dig into the (growing) pile of books at my own bedside – heck, maybe I too can find stories to relate to.  Perhaps, even as an adult, I could tap into some personal development through reading.

Have a shy kiddo?  Click here for a list of the books (well, at least the helpful ones) that I checked out with my preschooler.

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The Shy Factor by Sarah Kiser, CPNP-PC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

About sarahkiser

Pediatric nurse practitioner, writer, mother of two.

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