5 Things You Didn't Know About Shy Kids

Photo: Getty ImagesShy toddlers might not want to speak up — but that doesn’t mean they don’t understand what you're saying to them, according to a new study of the largely misunderstood connections between shyness and language.

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“Behaviorally inhibited children who may not be speaking much shouldn’t be underestimated,” says study author Soo Rhee, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder, in a press release about the findings. “Parents and teachers should be aware that they may need to be encouraged more in their expressive language development.”

The study, published in the journal Child Development, was prompted by a thesis student’s review paper that examined associations between shyness and verbal skills, Rhee tells Yahoo Shine. To test those associations, researchers looked at information collected on 816 toddlers — 408 sets of twins — at 14, 20, and 24 months of age, times when children’s language skills are growing rapidly. The researchers recorded observations of each child’s ability to repeat sounds, answer questions, and follow directions, looking for patterns in how the children’s behavior changed over time, and whether an increase in shyness followed or preceded a delay in speech. Their findings showed that shy toddlers actually understand much more than their lack of talking might suggest.

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The study results are just the latest discovery about kids with oft-misunderstood shyness — an “undervalued status in a world that values extroversion,” Susan Cain, best-selling author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” noted in a 2011 New York Times opinion piece.

And so, to help foster value — and understanding — here are four more salient nuggets about shy kids:

1. They are far from alone. Shyness is a part of “the great and glorious range of the human normal,” notes Dr. Perri Klass in a New York Times Well piece, who writes about a study by Kathleen Merikangas, a senior investigator at the National Institute of Mental Health, of 10,000 older children ranging from 13 to 18 years old. “We found that about half of kids in America describe themselves as shy,” Merikangas tells Klass.

2. Labeling your child “shy” is not helpful. “On hearing this, a child feels something’s wrong with her, and this will make her feel more shy,” notes Dr. William Sears, who suggests using more accurate terms like “private” or “reserved,” which won’t make your child feel flawed. That belief was echoed by Merikangas, who told the New York Times that perhaps the worst thing to do is tell your child, “Don’t be shy. Don’t be quiet.”

3. Kids can form strategies for dealing with shyness. “The general rule of thumb,” writes psychologist and parenting coach Dr. Laura Markham, “is to accept the nervousness that comes up as a part of normal life that affects most people, reassure yourself that you’re OK anyway, and focus on others rather than yourself.” You can help your child do that, perhaps with a reminder that she doesn’t have to be interesting, just interested, and that asking kother ids questions and listening to their answers can be all she needs to try to do.

4. A shy kid is not necessarily introverted. “Shy people fear negative judgment, while introverts simply prefer less stimulation; shyness is inherently painful, and introversion is not,” Cain has noted, which is helpful when trying to understand the feelings of a shy kid. “But,” she adds, “in a society that prizes the bold and the outspoken, both are perceived as disadvantages.” You can help your timid one to see his own quiet power by pointing out that same power in others. “For very different reasons, shy and introverted people might choose to spend their days in behind-the-scenes or ‘passive’ pursuits like inventing, or studying, or holding the hands of the dying,” Cain says. “These are not alpha roles, but the people who play them are role models all the same.”

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