Author Sian Prior has been a broadcaster and performer for more than 20 years, but has managed a lifetime of shyness. Here she explains how we can support children suffering from social anxiety
‘Dad has no idea how paralysing this thing is. I never want to talk to him again’. These miserable words appeared recently in a Facebook message from my teenage friend Anna*. Her father had been giving her a hard time about not finding a part-time job. He accused his daughter (and not for the first time) of being lazy and of sponging off her parents. In fact Anna is suffering from a form of anxiety so severe that some days she can’t leave the house.
Anna’s father is a fearless extrovert. Like her mother, though, Anna is very shy. Shyness is an inherited temperament trait that often manifests as social anxiety; our nervous systems are hard-wired to avoid those we don’t know intimately. Some of us may eventually find ways to feel safe in the company of strangers. Others develop full-blown social phobia and endure lives of quiet desperation. The difference sometimes comes down to how we are parented.
One of the first people to make a study of the experience of shyness was Charles Darwin. A century and a half ago, Darwin described shyness as one of ‘the mental states which induce blushing’.
‘It is not the simple act of reflecting on our own appearance’, Darwin wrote, ‘but the thinking what others think of us, which excites a blush. Shyness seems to depend on sensitiveness to the opinion, whether good or bad, of others, more especially with respect to external appearance.’
The scientist writes tenderly about his two year old son who behaved shyly towards his father after Darwin had returned from a week-long absence. Darwin begs his readers not to judge shy children when they avoided the scrutiny of ‘the unmerciful spectator’.
One hundred and fifty years on, Darwin’s findings have been confirmed by psychologists specialising in social anxiety. According to Professor Ron Rapee, head of the Centre for Emotional Health in Sydney, at the core of social anxiety is fear of negative judgement. ‘A diagnosis (of social anxiety) requires that people avoid social situations because of that concern about being evaluated by others.’
Rapee says a lot of shy people have physical symptoms like shaking and blushing. Some are able to ‘get on with life and don’t let it stop them. But people who are highly shy are the ones most likely to be socially phobic’.
The Centre for Emotional Health offers a range of online resources for the parents of anxious kids, including downloadable fact sheets. It also conducts research into the impacts of shyness on children. For example, one study shows how an innate dislike of uncertainty is part of the distress experienced by young people with socially anxiety. Another confirms that social anxiety can get in the way of children making friends.
I recall my own mother trying to encourage me to deal with my dislike of uncertainty when it came to making childhood friends. In my memoir, Shy, I describe how I found it almost impossible to visit my friend Sally who lived just around the corner.
My anxious mind was so full of ‘what ifs’ (what if she doesn’t want me there?) that my mother had to bribe me with coins to make the journey to Sally’s place. My mother’s instincts were right; gentle encouragement with rewards for risk-taking can be very helpful for shy children. On the other hand a response like that of Anna’s father – punishing a shy child for her fears – can only add to their distress.
Later in life, my mother pursued her interest in children’s behaviour and became a psychologist specialising in the study of temperament. In researching my memoir I interviewed Professor Prior (aka mum) about her findings.
“‘If, by the time you’re nine or ten, you’ve been shy all along and you’re still shy then it’s a pretty enduring characteristic,” she told me. “But lots of kids are initially shy and grow out of it. The way the parents handle it can make a difference. It’s hard if the parents are biologically inclined to be shy and are modelling shy behaviour. But if the parents model brave behaviour, then that can help.”
According to a set of guidelines distributed by the Centre for Emotional Health, the three most important things a parent can do for a socially anxious child are to show them affection and acceptance, to stay emotionally in touch with them and to support their attempts to be more independent.
Respond consistently to your child in a warm, loving, supportive and respectful way, and support their autonomy. Be involved in the various aspects of your child’s life and engage in fun activities. Know who your child’s friends are, take an interest in what (they’re) doing.
Everything in moderation, though. Being over-protective of a child gives them the message that the world is a dangerous place. It is important that children be allowed to take age-appropriate risks, attempt difficult tasks and learn from their mistakes. Being impatient with their anxiety can be unhelpful, as can pushing them too far too fast. For example it may not be helpful to encourage your teenager to enter a singing contest if they’re not yet comfortable singing in front of the family.
In Anna’s case, perhaps fronting up for a job interview is simply a bridge too far for a teenager struggling with social anxiety. If fear of negative evaluation is a problem then she may need to gain more confidence dealing with unknown adults before she puts herself in a situation where she is being judged as a job applicant.
Former sex worker Kate Holden, author of the best-selling memoir In My Skin, describes herself as having been a shy child: ‘My mother tells me that when we’d go to my friends’ birthday parties I wouldn’t leave her side. Then she would invite all these people for my birthday parties and I would run away and hide while they all sang happy birthday to the cake,’ she laughs.
Holden has vivid memories of being tormented by her fears. ‘I remember at school being asked to do something for a theatre class and freezing up. I sat on the side curling tighter and tighter into a little bundle with my knees up to my chin saying ‘no, no, no’. Eventually my teachers contacted my parents and suggested I see a psychologist. After six weeks the psychologist said ‘Leave her alone, stop pestering her, she’s not comfortable with this and not good at relating to people in these situations.’ ’
In my own battles with shyness I discovered that I could behave more confidently and take more risks in the workplace than in social situations. Feeling professionally useful allowed me to focus less on my own anxieties. Kate Holden describes in her memoir how she found an escape from her shyness while working in a brothel, where she could hide behind her professional persona as a sex worker.
Understanding more about the causes and effects of my shyness has certainly helped me to feel less embarrassed by it and therefore to take more control. I’ve sent copies of the guidelines for parenting anxious children to both Anna and her father. Perhaps the advice they contain will help this father and daughter find common ground.
Anna’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.
Need help? Find support at parentingstrategies.net/depression
Sian Prior is a writer, broadcaster, musician and creative writing teacher. Shy: A Memoir is published by Text Publishing.