(A dad and daughter see a friend of the dad’s approaching.)
Dad: “There’s Joan. She works with me. I’ll introduce you.”
Daughter: “No, that’s O.K.”
Dad: “But I brag about you all the time at work. She’ll want to meet you.” (turning to his friend) “Hi, Joan. This is Kelly.”
Daughter: (blushes, crosses her arms) “Hi.”
Dad: “Come on, Kelly, she won’t bite.” (sighs) “I’m sorry, Joan. Kelly’s a little shy.”
If your daughter is shy, you know the frustration this dad feels. We want our daughters to have good friends and to achieve great things in the world. Those dreams seem threatened when a girl is shy.
For some girls, shyness is actually fear—an excessive fear of new people and situations. A shy girl assumes others are going to evaluate her negatively. When Kelly’s father presents her to his friend, her adrenaline surges, her heart pounds and her stomach flutters. While her body churns, her mind freezes. She can’t remember the name of the woman she just met.
This reaction on our daughters’ part is often hard for us parents to understand. Aren’t adolescent girls supposed to be social creatures? That’s certainly what we expect. Yet, shy girls may well be the norm rather than the exception. In a study at Stanford University, shyness was found to run at a consistent 42% among all ages and for both genders—except junior-high girls. In that group, more than 50% of the girls were shy. Furthermore, a study at Cornell revealed that intensely shy boys usually learn to mask their shyness by age 16, while shy girls don’t.
What causes this rise in shyness among adolescent girls? Change is a big factor. Rapid biological, social and psychological changes can undermine a girl’s self-confidence and make her temporarily shy. According to researchers, girls who relate well to adults but not to peers are especially vulnerable to shyness at this age, along with gifted girls and only children. A girl who sees herself as different from others is likely to become shy, as is a girl who is going through a divorce in the family or a move to a new school.
In many cases, girls become shy only in certain situations—around boys, for example, or at school. Common during adolescence, “situational shyness” is genuine and can be intense. Still, it goes away when circumstances change.
A Personality Trait
But what about the girl who is nearly always cautious around people? Perhaps she is highly sensitive and finds the world a little overwhelming. Perhaps she was born with shyness as a part of her personality. One of my own daughters is shy. Her comfort zone, the times and places she feels completely at ease, is very narrow. Does her shyness keep her from pursuing her dreams? That remains to be seen. But the more I learn about shyness, the more encouraged I become.
Shyness isn’t a disability, and shyness alone doesn’t cause low self-esteem in a girl (though negative reactions to her shyness can). Shyness is a personality trait that actually contains valuable core strengths. A girl with this type of personality needs accepting parents. The difference that makes is illustrated in a story told by Ward Swallow, Ph.D., in his book The Shy Child: Helping Children Triumph over Shyness:
At 15, Emily was intensely shy. She felt comfortable only with family members and a few close friends. She had inherited artistic talent from her father, but she was so shy that she stopped going to her art classes. Emily’s outgoing mother tried to understand her daughter’s reticence. Fortunately, Emily’s mother was interested in family genealogy, and she asked Emily to help map the family tree. In the process, they interviewed relatives and uncovered family traits that had been passed down from earlier generations—including Emily’s reserve. She was one of the “quiet ones” who kept to the sidelines but were perceptive and sensitive. Knowing that she came from a long line of shy people gave Emily a sense of belonging. Her mother made sure that Emily did not use this as an excuse to avoid situations. Instead, armed with the understanding that shyness was a core part of her personality, Emily gained the confidence to go back to her art classes.
Helping Shy Girls Cope
When our daughters are shy, we’re often tempted toward two reactions—swooping in to rescue them any time they struggle or grow tongue-tied or, at the other extreme, forcing them into new situations hoping to toughen them up. Both of these approaches only make shyness worse. Like Emily’s mom, we need to find middle ground. Here’s how:
Acceptance. Try not to compare your daughter’s behavior to the outgoing behavior of others. Let her know you see her strengths, such as her insight or her ability to listen. If you aren’t shy yourself, do your best to understand. Her shyness may seem irrational to you, but it is real. Never belittle her feelings. Your respect will build her confidence.
Labeling. Most shy people can pinpoint the day someone first pinned the shyness label on them. Avoid labeling your daughter as shy. Instead, name specifics, such as “she’s uncomfortable meeting new people” or “she is cautious.” If you and she already use the “shy” word, talk about her reserve as part of the total, wonderful person she is.
Social Skills. Assure your daughter that two out of every five people she meets are also shy. Explain that many people are shy extroverts—they overcome shyness by acting outgoing. For a shy girl, the first step is the hardest, so teach her basic social skills such as shaking hands firmly and looking people in they eye. Also help her practice giving compliments and asking for favors. Look for times when she can step out of her shy role. Do a puppet show, wearing a mask or dressing in costume may reduce her inhibitions.
New situations. If your daughter is anxious about a new situation, try role-play. You can make this enjoyable by using funny voices or pretending to be Shakespearean actors. Use visualizations. As she falls asleep at night, help her visualize the scenario and a positive outcome you and she have already scripted.
In the end, what sensitive daughters need most from us is unconditional love. They need to know that we find them perceptive and interesting young people, whose presence in our lives is a constant source of joy.
These words may help when your daughter is shy:
Dad: “Lots of people feel cautious around new people.”
Dad: “I understand that this is hard for you. Saying ‘Hi’ is enough.”
Dad: “Remember how we practiced shaking hands firmly and making eye contact?”
About the author: Amy Lynch is the founding editor of Daughters and author of How Can You Say That: What to Say to Your Daughter When One of You Just Said Something Awful.