Q. I am the older, working mother of a great 9-year-old girl, our only child, and I'm concerned about her special brand of shyness. She seems to be a mix of my husband and me: I enjoy physical and emotional closeness, but I'm what you might call a "shy extrovert." Even though I seem to be socially comfortable I'm really not, because I'm afraid of being judged by others.
My husband and many members of his large family, including his mother, are extremely uncomfortable with verbal or physical affection. They are kind people with good hearts, but they have difficulty displaying emotion and greeting people. My husband's voice can be very low and he often avoids making eye contact with people he doesn't know well but he is a very good father and he and our daughter have always been close.
They react alike, too. Our daughter is shy around her grandparents and other adults she doesn't see every day and answers their questions briefly, in a low voice and looks away while she talks.
Even her day-care provider, to whom she's been going for years, is frustrated because she never responds to her "good mornings" or makes eye contact. I tell her that it is just plain good manners to speak to people, that it doesn't matter what they think of her and that she is a terrific daughter.
Does she have low self-esteem? Is she a clone of her dad with her mom's neurotic overtones? Or is she reflecting our marriage? My husband and I have some disagreements, which he refuses to discuss, so the vibes we send aren't the best, but they're not the worst either.
How can we help our daughter? She is usually a very happy, creative, fun-loving child who gets along fine with her friends.
A. You saved the best and most important information until last.
A child who is happy and has fun with her peers is doing fine, and will continue to do well, since most of her friends will always be her own age, but she may never be very sure of herself with professors, bosses and people she barely knows. That's just the way she is.
Your daughter may be shy because she's imitating you and her dad, or because she inherited a biological predisposition that makes her uneasy around anything or anyone new. Although she gets used to new situations, new spaces, new buildings and new tasks in time, new people are always a surprise and they will make your cautious child feel shy unless she sees them often.
Shyness can be upsetting but it isn't unusual.
Jerome Kagan of Harvard says that 10-15 percent of children are shy -- by nurture or nature -- and nine out of 10 of them get over the problem by the time they grow up.
In the meantime you can help your daughter handle her fears by seeing that she spends time with new people her own age as well as her old friends, and that you help her face her fears.
There are many ways to do this and role-playing, despite its silly name, is one of the most effective. Ask your daughter to pretend that you and she are meeting each other for the first time -- at a party, a business conference or a PTA meeting. If you put on fancy hats and talk in a stilted, affected style, you can make fun of your mutual fears and learn to handle them quicker.
You also need to help your child understand others a little better, so they won't intimidate her so much. An old man may ask too many questions because he retired too soon and he's bored; a neighbor may be unfriendly because she can't have children and it makes her sad to talk to them or a teacher may be sarcastic because she doesn't know how to manage a class and she's scared.
Try to work on your marriage, too, by being as clear and as non-threatening as possible when you discuss issues with your husband. This will make it easier for him to say what he thinks. He may never be able to express his feelings freely or to be comfortable when you give him compliments and hugs, but he'll appreciate warm and loving notes. The less judgmental you are with him, the better the vibes will be and the more secure your daughter will feel.
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