An Empowering Alternative to the Shy Label



shyness the unwelcomed Label

A friend once shared with me that when she was in fifth grade, her peers had voted her the shyest student in the class. 

Unlike the other "winners" who had been voted smartest, most talented, prettiest, etc., she remembers feeling a deep sense of shame…a shame she carried alone. 

Had it made her wish that she wasn't so shy? 

Yes, definitely. 

Had it helped her come out of her shell? 

No, quite the contrary. 

In fact, for the next two weeks, it pained her to even utter a single word in class. 

At home, however, her pain was expressed loudly…through a short fuse, outbursts, and sibling power-plays…things which led to punishment and further self-recrimination.

Now fortunately, most schools have done away with such contests. 

Apart from my "shy" friend, the "non-winning" students in her class were most likely left feeling somewhat “less-than” as well. 

While those contests have mostly gone by the wayside, we do, however, continue to label our kids as shy.


shyness a well-intentioned label

Many well-intentioned adults consider the shy label neutral or merely short-hand for a certain set of behaviors or attributes. 

This makes sense because as adults we’re not thinking poorly of a child that we are describing as shy.

In fact, many of us equate a shy child with a sweet child.


The Problem with the shyness label 

The shy label is only problematic because each time a child is saddled with it, it serves to reinforce a limited version of that child.  

This really goes with any label (the bossy one, the responsible one, the sloppy one, the athletic one, etc.). 

Labels tend to box kids into certain prescribed roles. 

But, here we’re focusing on the shy label.

If kids are expected to be the quiet or the shy one, they will be…even when they aren't feeling that way. 

Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with being quiet…we live in a noisy, hectic world…quiet can be refreshing, welcomed, needed.

It only becomes a problem when a child is squelching his or her genuine voice…when she wants or needs to speak up. 

And shyness or shy behavior can often become more of an entrenched habit than the way the child really wants to be or act.

And parents can do some simple things to help reverse this habit


Empowering words for our "shy" children

So, instead of labeling, how can we use empowering language with our "shy" kids?

Let’s look at a common scenario to help us answer this question:

Carla and her mom are waiting in a long check-out line.

The woman in front of them turns around and tries to engage Carla in conversation by asking her a simple question. 

Caught off guard, Carla freezes and looks up at her mom, hoping she'll jump in to “rescue” her. 

And predictably, mom does, saying, "Oh, she's just shy."  

The woman, palpably relieved, responds, "Oh I see…shy." 

Then mom and the woman strike up their own conversation, as Carla quickly fades into the background.   

Carla has “dodged the bullet” again, her lack of response immediately reinforced by her lowered anxiety.


social engagement, a skill that can be taught 

But here we have lost another opportunity for Carla to practice the skill of social engagement.  

Now some children seem to naturally develop this skill, while others (and not just shy children) need some coaching to develop it.

Now if this dynamic between mom and Carla had been an isolated or rare occurrence, it would not be problematic. 

But, this same dynamic has been repeated dozens, if not hundreds, of times. 

So, over time, Carla has learned to see herself as someone who is better off remaining invisible…believing she does not know how to contribute to such conversations, or worse, has nothing worthwhile to contribute. 

And the longer this goes on, the more entrenched Carla’s social "opt-out" pattern becomes. 

Of course, mom has the best of intentions in coming to Carla's "rescue".  Mom just wants Carla to feel at ease. 

But, mom needs a new strategy for handling these situations…one in which Carla will begin to see herself in a new light. 


A simple reframe

So, the next time this dynamic begins to play out…instead of labeling Carla as shy, mom can simply say something like:

 "She's not feeling talkative right now.  But, other times she loves to talk."


"Sometimes she needs a little bit of time to get used to someone.  But, once she does, she can really enjoy interacting. She has a lot to say."


Scaffolding Social Engagement

Along with that simple reframe, mom can start gently incorporating Carla into conversations. 

For example, if the woman in the check-out line had asked Carla, “What grade are you in, Honey?”  

...Mom could step in…but in a different way...  

Mom could look directly at Carla, and say something like, “You’re in 3rd grade, right? 

And then mom could wait for a head nod or another response.  And then continue, asking something such as, “And what’s the name of your teacher?”

Carla could most-likely answer such questions, as they require little need for processing. 

So, in this way, mom would be able to subtly guide Carla over the hump,  and begin incorporating her into conversations. 

It’s worth noting that shy children, especially when caught off guard, often take more time than the average child to respond.

This is due to anxiety. 

And thus, some extra time before mom jumps in can be helpful.

It gives the child time to respond on her own if she chooses.

It's also worth noting that sometimes we, as parents, jump in due to our own discomfort around silence.

So…if you as a parent have been in this jump in and rescue pattern with your child, next time consider pausing and trying out one or both of these strategies. 

And when you do, you might just notice an intrigued look cross your child’s face...  

And after the interaction, you might even notice a positive change in your child’s mood…the fruit of a positive shift in self-perception.

The shy label slams the door shut to other options, while these small adjustments can open the door to expansive possibilities. 

Sometimes as parents, we can start to feel like it will require drastic or exhausting measures for change to occur. 

So, isn’t it nice to know that with just a slight shift, you can make a powerful impact in the life of your child? 


 Helping Anxious Kids is here to support your family.  If you are seeking anxiety treatment for your child and my approach resonates with you, schedule an appointment today.