Recently, there was a letter to Dear Abby about a little girl who was too shy/anxious to talk with her aunt on the phone. When the aunt would visit, the girl would hide in her bedroom and not come out. The aunt asked Abby for confirmation that this girl was rude.
What gives the aunt, or Dear Abby for that matter, the right to pin a negative label on a shy and sensitive child? Why does our society consider the shy and anxious to be defective? While I agree that this child may need help, what she needs most is to be accepted and understood.
As a therapist, I learned long ago that the quickest way to help someone change is to accept who they are first.
When my son was a preschooler, we frequently watched the Nickelodeon cartoon, Rugrats. The show had wonderful characters, representing the full range of personalities and temperaments. There was Angelica, the bossy loudmouth. Tommy was very reasonable, a peacemaker. Then there was Chuckie, the cautious and fearful kid.
In one particular episode, Chuckie's Wonderful Life, Chuckie wishes that he had never been born. Just like the Jimmy Stewart/Frank Capra Christmas classic, It's a Wonderful Life, an angel comes down and allows Chuckie to see what the world would be like if he had never existed.
Chuckie is shown a world where all of his friends are constantly getting into dangerous situations. He can't comprehend what he is seeing. Then, the "gardening angel," as his celestial buddy is called, tells him the reason for all the chaos: "Without you, there was no one to say, 'I don't think that's such a good idea.'"
I love this episode because it points out that we all serve a purpose. The shy and anxious kids sit back and notice things. They take their time before jumping in. They contemplate. They consider the feelings of others.
There is nothing wrong with being shy.
In the case of the aunt who wrote to Dear Abby, there is reason to be concerned about a child who is unable to speak with others. That child may feel considerable distress. She may wish to speak up more, to feel more comfortable in social situations. Long term, she will need to find a way to interact with other people to a significant degree.
However, labeling this little girl as rude or obstinate will only compound the problem.
A healthier (and more effective approach) would be to accept that the child has a shy/anxious temperament. Understanding friends and family members could tell the little girl that it is ok to feel anxious, that most people feel this way at times. They could help the child gradually practice small steps in being more sociable, to try things that take the child slightly out of her comfort zone.
By doing so, they could expand the menu of the child's possible behaviors, thus giving her more tools for interacting with the world. This would allow this girl to grow in confidence without diminishing her gifts of shyness and sensitivity.
I have seen children, such as the little girl in the Dear Abby column, eventually find their voices. This sometimes takes considerable time, love, and understanding. But, when it happens, it's magical.
Copyright 2011 Greg Markway
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