The Quiet Child: At What Point is Shyness… “Too Shy?”


By Sara Berlin, LMSW

It is common for people, especially children, to struggle with transitioning to the fall season. At the start of each school year, many children present as shy and struggle to interact with peers and teachers. While the majority of such children will “open up” over the first month of school, some children remain sheepish such that their parents and teachers become concerned. At what point is shyness “too shy”?

Intense shyness that lasts beyond the typical 1-month adjustment period to school may be a sign of Social Anxiety Disorder, an anxiety disorder that affects 4-9% of children and adolescents, or approximately 1 in 10-20 children. While feelings of anxiety in social situations are a normal part of life (and even healthy in some cases!), Social Anxiety Disorder is characterized by persistent and excessive fears about being negatively evaluated by others, which causes notable distress or impairment in everyday life. Children with Social Anxiety Disorder often struggle to attend school, perform as required, and/or socialize with peers, since they tend to be overly quiet and avoid activities that may draw attention to themselves.

In other cases, children may show signs of Selective Mutism, another anxiety disorder in which children refuse to speak in situations where talking is expected or necessary. Children with Selective Mutism may turn their heads away when others approach them or chew/twirl their hair in order to avoid eye contact. They may also stand motionless and expressionless or withdraw into a corner to avoid talking. Interestingly, children with Selective Mutism can be talkative and display normal behaviors at home or other places where they feel comfortable, such that parents are sometimes surprised to learn from a teacher that their child refuses to speak at school.

Here are some practical tips for parents with children who are struggling with social anxiety or selective mutism:

 Understand Your Child’s Intentions

Know that socially anxious or selectively mute children are not trying to be troublesome by ignoring friends and teachers. In fact, such children are usually highly compliant, since they are afraid of being judged or evaluated negatively by others. Avoidance of social situations or speaking are simply (maladaptive) ways of not feeling distressing feelings of anxiety. Almost all socially anxious children would do anything to stop being so anxious and “difficult!” So, be compassionate and validate their feelings of anxiety and fear.

 Give Praise (even) for Small Social Interactions!

Overcoming social anxiety and selective mutism involves a child gradually facing their fears and interacting more with others over time. As such, give your child praise right away whenever they try to interact with or communicate to others (verbally or even non-verbally). Any baby steps your child takes towards overcoming their anxiety should be reinforced. So, when you see your child struggling to speak in spite of their fear, make sure to praise them right away! And needless to say, refrain from making negative comments when you see them struggling. Punishing good behavior (trying to interact with others) can make things much worse, since socially anxious kids tend to be very sensitive to criticism. In addition, it is very important to identify and “label” your child’s specific behavior as you praise them. For example, if you see your child struggling to speak, instead of giving a generic praise such as “great job” you can say something like “I can see how hard it is to speak to these unfamiliar people in your class, and I’m proud of how you made sure to ask the entire question.” In sum, (1) praise your child ASAP after they do something hard, (2) be as specific as possible when praising, and (3) do it often.

 Don’t Probe, Validate

Parents naturally want to ask children questions about their fears (probe) when they start noticing them getting tense in certain social settings. Believe it or not, asking questions to children to alleviate anxiety can actually have the opposite effect, since it directs a child’s thoughts even deeper into their anxiety. Instead of probing, ignore the negativity and focus on praising positive behavior. With that said, it’s important to validate your child’s anxiety, especially if he feels overwhelmed. For example, note that they are overcoming an emotional challenge when they resist the urge to avoid. For example, you can say, “I know that speaking with your classmate was really hard for you today and I am proud that you are practicing your bravery.”

 Resist the Urge to Speak for Your Child

When you see that your child is feeling uncomfortable and anxious, it’s common to want to intervene and speak on their behalf. After all, what parent wants to see their child in distress?! However, saving your child from anxiety will make it harder for them to learn how to speak – if you communicate for them when they are anxious they will never learn to manage their anxiety! Instead, try to encourage them to speak or, if they are really struggling, you can tell guests that your child is working on bravely talking and he’ll try again in a minute or two. Just make sure you do in fact come back to it a minute or two later, though! If you don’t, and you simply “save” your child from speaking, it will reinforce their silence by preventing them from ever having to learn to speak for themselves.

 Make Talking Fun!

There are some games you can play that encourage continued speech, like Go Fish, Battleship, Surveys of “Favorites,” Hangman, Spot It, and Tell Tale. Be patient and positive as your child finds new ways to cope! Secure attachment and strong social support are huge protective factors for all children, particularly those experiencing anxiety disorders. Continue to provide a warm, safe, loving, and fun environment for your child!

 Seek Help

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, childhood anxiety disorders are easily treated and many families can benefit from consulting a mental health professional. A therapist can help assess, diagnose, and treat the anxiety disorder and help you create a plan to help your child cope and overcome their fears. Cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) is the gold standard to treat childhood anxiety disorders as it helps children learn new ways to think in anxiety provoking situations, and teaches them concrete techniques to manage and tolerate their anxiety. If you are concerned about your child’s anxiety, seek help from a trained professional who can help you and your child.

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Calmer in the Face of Hardship
I came to the Center for Anxiety for help in dealing with a family member who suffered from extreme anxiety. But I ended up getting a serious illness two months later and started having my own sessions. With the help of my therapist I got through my illness, learned to understand my habits that were making my major life stresses worse, learned to communicate better, taper my anger, and surprisingly I became more calmer even though my hardships in life worsened. Therapy is a lot of work and not easy, but nothing in life comes easy! I became a better and softer mom and (when I practice what I learned) and my kids and home are calmer and happier. I am still a work in progress and have more to work on, but I know I am on the right path. I wish I knew before how my communication style and anger were really impacting my life, how being softer you can accomplish way more then being harsh. I have been to other therapists in the past and I can hands down say that the Center for Anxiety’s approach is really effective. I have even referred a bunch of people to the Center and they have been really happy with the therapists and how much they really care for their patients.
I Tackled a Long List of Fears
When I first came to the Center for Anxiety, my list of anxieties/fears was long! I was scared of getting sick, getting stranded, driving, flying and more. With the help of my therapist, I immediately got to work and tackled every one of my fears. Now the world is open to me and I feel free! I can dream big and accomplish whatever I set my mind to! I am especially grateful that I was able to do all this without having to rely on medication. It was hard work – grueling at times! – but now I have the coping tools within me for life. In fact a family member recently said to me “You are awesome. You can accomplish anything you set your mind to because you don’t let fear stop you! ” Thank you Dr. Rosmarin and the Center for Anxiety staff for helping me get here. My fears no longer limit me and I love my life. Try it, it might turn your life around too!
Highly Skilled and Professional Treatment
When I sought treatment at the Center for Anxiety, the clinic was is in its incipient stages. However, by the time I successfully finished treatment, the Center for Anxiety grew and flourished into a world-class treatment center, offering cutting-edge, evidence-based treatment to countless individuals. The continued success of the Center for Anxiety comes as no surprise to me, with a team that contains such highly skilled professionals who display clinical acumen, empathy, and compassion. When I first entered treatment I was concerned that therapy would be similar to the experiences with past psychologists: a seemingly bottomless pit with no reductions in my anxiety symptoms, but was so relieved when I started to feel less anxious after only a handful of sessions. My therapist created a treatment plan that was tailored exactly to my needs and taught me practical skills to help me work through my anxiety that I still use and practice to this very day.
No More Panic
When I first came in, I was struggling with panic disorder and didn’t even know it, which only made dealing with it that much more difficult. After my first time sitting down with my therapist, however, I instantly started to gain perspective and look at the difficult situation in a different light. Our meetings helped me conquer the issue step by step and get my life back on track. I’d strongly recommend that anyone dealing with anxiety in a way that impacts their day to day life should visit the Center for Anxiety! I know it helped me tremendously.
Free of Obsessions
When I woke up one morning last June and didn’t want to get out of bed, I knew I needed help. The thought of getting through another day with all my anxieties, obsessions and rituals was just too overwhelming. After feeling stuck for years, I just couldn’t anymore. Thankfully, that’s when I found the Center for Anxiety. Dr. Rosmarin and his staff are experts at what they do, kind and professional. After just several weeks I accomplished my initial targets. The change I experienced in such a short amount of time was astounding that I stayed on for a while longer to work on more complex goals. I soon achieved those too. Now, I am free of my obsessions, know how to manage my anxiety, and love my life. My only regret: not having done this sooner. I wish I had known that you don’t have to wait to hit rock bottom to get help.
Depression Lifted
I’m 26 years old and I’ve been suffering from terrible depression for 7 years. In the throws of my sadness I literally wanted to die. Soon after starting therapy at the Center for Anxiety, my depression lifted. My suicidal thoughts began to dissipate. I remember the feeling that came over me as soon as the dark cloud above me left. It was the most liberating feeling I have ever experienced. I actually shouted to my friends, family and anyone nearby me “I’m Happy! I am Happy!” I felt free.
From EXISTING to LIVING
Over the course of four years I developed anxiety-like symptoms (tightness in chest, gut, back) that slowly but surely increased in duration and severity. The EXTREMELY uncomfortable nature of the symptoms notwithstanding, I still continued and managed to function. The effort required to do so, however, left me utterly drained. Having always been a very spiritual person I strongly felt that a course of therapy incorporating a spiritual component could potentially work well for me and decided to give the Center for Anxiety a try. Happily, I have achieved significant symptom reduction, tremendously improved emotional/mental health, and above all, Connection. Medication free. I’m no longer just existing, I’m LIVING. I’ve been given a second chance to become the unique human being that I was meant to be.
No More worries
I have wormed in healthcare for 36 years in many different settings, and I have been overwhelmingly satisfied with the Center for Anxiety. When staff says they are going to call, I get a call. From the first contact, I have been very impressed with the professionalism and efficiency. I had a situation and needed to have sessions more than once per week, and my clinicians worked out a schedule to accommodate my needs. I was astounded that they attended to me so quickly and effectively - they made my priority their priority. My clinicians were also excellent at what they do - they have a plan for me each session, and it's clear that they have thought in advance about each session, and that they are listening to what I say and observing what I do, even though our sessions have been conducted via Telehealth. Compassion is a quality that I have all too often found to be lacking in my experiences as a healthcare professional and patient, and this is not the case with the Center for Anxiety. Of all the websites I found on Google, I am so thankful that God guided my hand to yours.
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