Some kids are slow to warm up in company. Some are content without too much interaction with others. Other kids live in fear of having to speak or interact with others. It’s important that we understand the differences and preferences of children before we go rushing in to make them “come out of themselves” and be the “life of the party”.
From very early in a child’s life, we can get a sense of that child being a “people person” or not. Some bubs love the smiles, noises and interactions from other happy faces. Others are less sociable, perhaps even turning away from others and burying their face in Mum or Dad’s shoulder. Some infants will need lots of social stimulation and love time spent with others. Still others will be somewhere in between and once they have warmed up and feel secure they will turn out of their parent’s armpit and smile at others.
These ways that children interact from very early in their lives are referred to as temperaments. Temperament is our own little style or our early preferences for interacting with the world. Early in our lives we haven’t yet amassed enough aspects of ourselves to call it a personality, but we have our style of early behaviours and it affects us and the sorts of reactions we get from others.
If we are a sociable bub and our parent is more of a loner, we may be under stimulated or if our parent is really sociable and loves to entertain and spend time with other people and bub is not that way inclined, there can be distress.
We need to take into account a child’s temperament when we are planning how best to help them accommodate and feel comfortable in the big wide world. Those bubs with a less sociable temperament are often best paired up with other infants who are also a little slow to warm to others and they will need to be sure that they have their safe base with Mum, Dad or their carer being very close. Temperament can have a big impact on the sorts of adults infants will become.
A really big study of temperament was done here in Australia over a beautifully long period of time from around 1982 to 2000 called “The Australian Temperament Project”. The project’s researchers looked at infants from their birth through to the ages of 17 or 18 to discover which parts of their temperament were sustained over the years and which styles and preferences faded or changes.
When it came to shyness, there were some factors that could lock in a shy temperament for a long period of a child’s life and some where a shy temperament disappeared over time.
Children who had been shy from very early in their lives but “grew out of” their shyness tended to have parents who did not make them feel guilty or anxious, were warm and nurturing, and, importantly, who did not push them to be independent too soon.
Others who were found to have not started off shy, but developed shyness over time, were those children who had been exposed to more physical discipline and were controlled with much guilt and anxiety. Clearly, parenting style had some effect on the outcomes when it came to life long tendencies to be shy.
Some shy people are often referred to as introverts, but this is not always the case. Introversion or Extraversion are aspects of personality and refer to our preferred way for taking information in from the world and the different things that give us energy or motivate us.
Introverts prefer going about the world with a focus on their ideas, memories and images rather than becoming excited or energised by being with, and interacting with, people in the world.
While shyness and introversion can both be associated with avoiding other people, with an introvert, it’s more a preference to go about the world concentrating on things and activities that do not always require contact with others. It is very different from having a fear of socialising.
A child’s discomfort or distress with socialising has to do with how much they want or don’t want to be around others and how hard it is for them to actually be around others.
Introverts may not take up lots of social opportunities, but they can also tend not to actively avoid socialising. Introverts are energised more by things and activities than they are by other people in a situation. They may prefer books or art or music, or even acting, to the actual social aspects of human company.
It also may be that some young people (and older ones, too) are shy or a little anxious in specific social situations and not with all social situations.
Some people may get extremely anxious in job interviews or in sporting situations. Some avoid public speaking. If a child’s happy lifestyle or personal goals do not require these things from them and they are happy, then these anxieties are not a big and chronic issue. They may want to get some help and support about specific problems, like the job interview, as the need arises.
On the other hand, there is social anxiety, or social phobia, that is an excessive fear of speaking to or being with others. Social anxiety or social phobia is typically something I start to see more in my practice as children become teenagers. It seems the social burst that comes with puberty and the all-important focus shift to peers, seems to open any gap in shyness wider. A teen brain brings with it the added harshness of being able to judge ourselves socially and, as if it is not already too hard for some kids to feel comfortable in social situations, this extra change in their biology and the biology of their friends, can mess further with their confidence. It’s often the case that people who are very socially anxious may rely heavily on alcohol to relax them in social situations and this can be very risky.
The important thing about helping someone who is socially anxious is in understanding their perceptions of themselves.
Social anxiety often has a person caught up in their own thoughts about other people’s thoughts – the classic “I think that they think, that I should and they think…”.
Essentially, there is often a lot of automatic self talk that assumes that other people are judging them harshly and that they themselves are not going to meet a standard. The fear of making a social accident or slip-up becomes extreme.
Because someone with social anxiety finds it so hard to deal with their perception of others’ perceptions of them (it’s hard to write – image living with it!), they can start to avoid people. It’s easier to try to get out of a social situation than it is to run the risk of doing something embarrassing. People with social anxiety are often the ones checking the exits and thinking a lot about how they might be able to get away.
Those with social anxiety might fear the very signs that their body is anxious. Many are concerned about blushing and what other people think about their blushing. So much so, that their bodies normal anxiety reaction makes them blush. It can be a vicious anxious circle.
When treating social anxiety, it’s important that we get to the core idea that the person is concerned about – is it blushing, is it that they think they are boring, is it that they fear rejection???
Psychological treatment will help a young person with social anxiety to control the biology of their anxiety and then the flow of their automatic thinking. Then we practice gently exposing them to some of the situations they may fear at a pace that is carefully planned. If social anxiety gets so debilitating that it stops a person from functioning or contributes to them being depressed, then they should really seek professional help.
All up, if you have concerns about whether someone needs help with feeling comfy with others, first just check whether this is their preference or their fear.
If it’s their preference and you would like to spend more time with them, then plan something quiet and low key without too many other people. If it’s a fear or if there has been a change in someone who was once bubbly and outgoing, but is now shy and avoidant, it’s best to get them to talk to someone professional.