Thursday, July 16, 2015

On Being Shy...

Fair warning: this post will be full of my jumbled, rambling thoughts.  Proceed at your own risk.

I've been thinking a lot recently about selective mutism and shyness in relation to my girls and also my own life.  I've always struggled with being shy and socially uncomfortable, so it's not surprising to see these characteristics in Isla and even a little in Audrey too.  The question that I am wrestling with is now is the best way to parent my shy, socially anxious kid (sometimes kids).

Here's how a typical social interaction goes between Isla and someone she is not comfortable speaking to:

Person: "Hi Isla! How are you today?"
Isla:  stares straight ahead, does not speak
Person:  "Are you good?"
Isla:  stares straight ahead, does not speak
Me:  "Isla, can you nod your head and answer the question?"
Isla: stares straight ahead, does not speak
Person: You are getting so big.  How old are you now?
Isla: stares straight ahead, does not speak
Me: "Isla are you four?"
Isla: stares straight ahead, does not nod or speak
Me: "Can you hold up your fingers and show how old you are?"
Isla: stares straight ahead, does not move or speak
Me:  (unable to stand the silence anymore, I make an excuse for her) "Sorry, she's just shy."

The longer the person tries to interact with Isla, the more Isla shuts down. Often she will hold my hand and just squeeze as tight as she possibly can.  I usually try to help out a little and prompt her to answer the questions.  Right now, as baby step #1, we are trying to encourage her to respond non-verbally.  She gets a reward for ANY type of nonverbal response.  Sometimes she will nod her head, but a lot of times, she won't.  If she won't respond at all, I end up "rescuing" her and ending the conversation by excusing her behavior because she is shy.

This is not a good thing for me to do.  It provides an escape for Isla, and she learns that she can just avoid feeling the anxiety of responding to people because Mommy will do it for her.  I'm trying to change this.  But it is SO hard.  It makes for the most awkward social interactions when Isla is silent. And social interactions are always awkward for me too, so I just can't stand to deal with more awkwardness caused by Isla not speaking. Making an excuse for her is so much easier, even if I know it's not the right thing to do.  We are slowly working on changing this.  But it is going to take a LONG time.  Baby steps.  That's what I keep telling myself.

What I am discovering is that dealing with Isla's shyness also forces me to deal with my own shyness. As a child, I was often described as painfully shy.  I didn't reach the levels of non-speech/participation like Isla, but I remember being very quiet and very reserved and very nervous with people I did not know.  I am STILL very nervous around people I don't know.  I do not enjoy meeting new people.  Small talk is my worst nightmare!  I would rather do just about anything then stand around making small talk with a group of strangers.  Or even make small talk with a group of friends.  It makes me want to curl up in a fetal position and cry.  Obviously, I've learned how to do it and I do try to do it with good manners.  But it is never, ever something that I want to do, even now as a grown up adult.

I've always struggled to make friends in new places, as it is so scary to make conversation with new people.  I've often been accused of being stuck up or intimidating, because I don't talk to people like others do.  The idea of people thinking I am intimidating just makes me laugh, because it couldn't be farther from the truth.  I am the one who is intimidated by everyone else!  How could anyone be intimidated by little old me??  I have found that I enjoy planning parties and leading events, because it gives me something to do.  When I am in charge of a social event, I have a list of things to do to keep me busy and I don't have to worry as much about interacting socially with everyone else.

I grew up thinking that this "shyness" was a bad thing.  Something that I always wanted to change about myself.  Something that I always tried to change about myself.  As a kid and a teen and even a young adult, I would have given anything to trade places with someone and be more outgoing.  Anything!  I hated being shy, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not change that about myself.

It has taken a very long time, but now as an adult, I have finally come to accept that being shy is just a part of who I am.  While I think it is important to be friendly, move out of my comfort zone and reach out to people, I also think it is okay to just be quiet.  Being quiet has its strengths (Sidenote: I really need to read this book and this one too!).   I have ALMOST come to a point where I can completely accept that idea, though I still find myself wishing I could change it some days.

But what I really want is to find a way to help my kids, specifically Isla, accept their shyness at a younger age than I did. For a while, I did not want to use the term "shy" to describe them. I didn't want them to label themselves as shy or use it as an excuse to avoid polite social interaction.  However, I have since changed my mind about using the label "shy."  I am now okay with calling Isla shy, because I think that is honestly going to be a part of who she is.  What I want to do is use the term with a positive tone, so she doesn't grow up to view herself as negatively as I did.  I would love for both girls to see that being quiet and shy can be a strength and not a weakness.  To grow up feeling confident in their quietness and comfortable in their own skin.


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