Please leave me alone. I'm not lonely, nor scared, nor unhappy, nor lacking in confidence. I'm just shy. Naturally shy. It's like having freckles. It comes with the genetic package.

You may know a soft-spoken family. Or maybe you can see a thread of shyness running through generations-Great Aunt Sally, Uncle Roger, Cousin Jill, and now Jill's bashful 3-year-old son. A shy child may request to have just one or two friends at her birthday celebration; she may prefer to sit in the front of the classroom so she can "screen out" most of her classmates; she may enjoy spending hours reading, drawing or directing scenes for her LEGO characters; and she may choose a "quiet" career path such as medical research, or writing, or accounting, or forestry. Shyness itself is not inherently stressful. Being reserved or introverted may feel perfectly comfortable. However, the pressure often put on a child to "stop being so shy" can exacerbate how she reacts in social situations. Instead of trying to force your child to overcome shyness, you (and your child) might be more successful with accepting it.

Shy By Nature

Technically "shy" implies wanting to interact with others but being fearful about it, while an introvert doesn't always necessarily want interaction with others. A person can be both introverted and shy. Either way, it's important to recognize and respect the discomfort a child may experience in social situations - particularly with new people or with large numbers of people―and support her accordingly. There's a good chance she comes by this reaction naturally.

Shy behavior has been linked with particular gene patterns. The gene RGS2 has such a pattern. One study found it among introverted adults who all had been socially reserved as young children. A brain scan of adults with this gene pattern exhibited more fear and anxiety when they were shown photographs of faces displaying strong emotions than other adults who didn't have the gene. Another marker for shyness, 5-HTT, is also associated with depression and autism. This does not mean that a shy child is also depressed and/or autistic, but that the chromosomal structure itself could contribute to how a person relates to others. Since about 30,000 genes form the recipe for each human being, what is seen as shy behavior could have a variety of genetic patterns behind it.

Perceiving Social Situations Differently

An estimated 10 to 15 percent of the population has a shy temperament. If your child has a genetic recipe for shyness, you need to know that she perceives social situations differently than a child who does not. A new face triggers a protective response: she experiences more stimulation to the part of the brain that senses danger, resulting in elevating her stress level. To reduce the stimulation, she might look away from the source of the stress (the face) or seek out something familiar and comforting to cling to. Forcing her to "Say hello to the nice lady" only intensifies her stress level.

Dr. Nathan Fox, director of the Child Development Lab in the Human Development Department of the University of Maryland at College Park, is among the social scientists studying genetics and behavior. Genes alone, he suggests, are not the whole story. Social influences and experiences can modify a child's behavior for better or for worse. Fox says that a particular genetic makeup could put a child at risk for developing higher levels of stress depending on life experiences. His follow-up study of shyness in toddlers found that those who were still acting shyly at age 7 had mothers who reported low levels of social support and a high level of stress in their lives. Fox says, "If you are raised in a stressful environment (and have a shy gene) there is a higher likelihood that you will be fearful, anxious or depressed."

To increase a child's comfort level in social situations, there are many things a parent can do:

Reduce Stress

Pay attention to stress signs in your child-wide eyes, muscle tension, agitated movements, high pitched voice, nail biting-particularly during social interactions, and try to steer the conversation or activity to things your child enjoys, or let her know that she does not have to join in the conversation or activity. Criticism, conflict-ridden family relationships or a chaotic environment at school can make things very hard for a child who is naturally shy. Adults should tackle their own stress issues in order to provide a more peaceful home base for children.

Quality not Quantity

Keep a "social sameness" to what your shy child experiences. If you shop at the same time of the week at the same grocery store, look for the same smiley clerk at the checkout. All young children appreciate knowing what-and who-is coming next, but social surprises can cause a major upset to a shy child. She'll do best with a small circle of acquaintances, seeing them frequently enough to not have to relearn their faces, voices and body movements. Make routines out of social visits so she can establish predictability about coming and going from such places as her grandparents' house.

Gradual Transitions

When there have to be new people in your child's life, take it slowly. Preschools, child care centers, summer day camps and after-school activities should allow you to visit before regular attendance. On the first visit, focus on familiar aspects-they serve orange juice like we have at home, here are the toilets, there's a sliding board like the one at our park. Add a few more elements at your next visit. Introduce yourselves to your child's teacher and ask if you can take her picture so your child can get used to what she looks like (and maybe share the picture with her grandparents).

Make a Friend

Part of being shy is being confused about whether it is better to approach or to avoid that stranger. (Remember, her brain is flashing a warning to STAY AWAY.) You can help her make a friend out of a stranger by being the intermediary. Start the conversation. Draw out the other child's name (use her grown-up if he or she is handy) and give the potential friend your child's name. For this first interaction, you will probably have to stay in it. If all goes well, arrange to meet again. If this new friend is a classmate, the next meeting will happen soon enough. A shy child benefits tremendously from having a secure bond with at least one classmate, so your homework is to make a good match and keep it alight with frequent play dates.

Rehearsals

Pretend play is an excellent way to make a socially challenging situation more familiar and, therefore, less stressful. With a couple of cardboard boxes and a little creativity, you can set up a pretend library, grocery store, restaurant, birthday party, doctor's office, classroom, airport or other setting that your child could use some practice with. Take turns playing the part of the librarian, grocer, server, birthday guest of honor, etc. When it's your turn, use real-life language and actions so she can learn what should happen in each setting. When it's her turn, she has to remember what to do and say, which will show you if she has learned what to expect when she faces the real librarian in person.

Coaching

When you notice your child is feeling awkward, offer some words or actions for her to use. For example, if the friendly librarian asks her if she enjoyed the book she is returning and all she can do is to look at you and bite her lips, gently prod her with, "Wasn't your favorite part when Pippi Longstocking taught Annika and Tommy how to play 'Don't Touch the Floor'?" If she just nods in agreement, you've helped her answer the librarian's question. You're teaching her to bypass the stress signal she is experiencing to complete the social challenge: let the nice librarian know that you liked the book.

Self-Talk

Continue coaching as long as she needs it, and eventually her brain will automatically do the bypass-what is expected of me in this exchange? This is known as "self-talk." Pippi Longstocking employs this technique when she is invited to a fancy coffee party and worries about how to behave. So she screams "Forward march!" at the top of her lungs as she walks into the room. "You see," she says, "I am really very shy, so if I didn't give myself some commands I'd just stand in the hall and not dare to come in."

People Watching

Observation is a good way for your shy child to increase her knowledge of social behavior. Find a good observation point-a bench on the boardwalk, a booth in the coffee shop-and quietly observe together. Or stay home and watch examples of social interactions on the tube. The actors or cartoons won't mind if you critique their behavior: "That was a nice thing for her to do for her friend." "Uh oh. She's not going to like that she did that." If you come across a show or movie that has lots of good social lessons, your child will probably enjoy watching it over and over again.

Arrive Early

One strategy for being more comfortable in crowds is to arrive before the crowd. If you are one of the first families in the movie theater, your child has more time to get comfortable in the setting. As the rest of the audience trickles in, she has time to accept their presence in "her" space. The other way around, her extra-sensitive social reactor goes on overload worrying about ALL THOSE PEOPLE accepting her presence.

Bring a Friend

Any crowd is less threatening if you have at least one friend in it. Invite a friend along to go to the park, the bowling alley or the swimming pool, so your child needn't even think about all those other people there. She can just focus on having a good time with her buddy. For a toddler or preschooler, a beloved stuffed animal can serve this function almost as well.

Models

Perhaps you yourself are shy? Genetically speaking, the apple doesn't usually fall far from the tree. It's never too late to learn better social skills; you can add to your repertoire through people watching, rehearsals and (silent!) self-talk. Stretch yourself to give your child the best examples of how to interact with other people.

Interestingly many famous entertainers have described themselves as shy, claiming a role and a script, a good joke, carefully choreographed dance steps or well-rehearsed song lyrics make it much easier to know how to behave around other people.

Overcoming shyness is not the goal; accepting it is.


Deborah Wood is a child development specialist residing in Annapolis