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Ask Dr. Sears: Overcoming Shyness

Q. My 2 ½-year-old becomes completely quiet whenever we have guests. He's also very shy in front of strangers. How can we help him overcome this? Should we be worried?

Remember, shyness is a personality trait, not a flaw, and it isn't necessarily a social handicap. Some of the nicest people in the world are simply private, quiet persons. They're attentive listeners and exude a welcome presence without saying a word. In fact, it was her shyness that intrigued me when I first met my wife, Martha. She was standing next to a bunch of my boisterous fraternity brothers at a party during my senior year in medical school. Everyone was talking but her. She listened, she smiled, and her eyes met everyone else's, making her quiet presence felt. She made all the extroverts around her feel comfortable. I thought, "I have to know more about her." I called her the next day. After eight kids and 35 years of marriage to a hyperactive husband, though, Martha isn't exactly shy any longer.

Shyness is sometimes a red flag indicating that a child is struggling with inner problems. These children are more than just quiet -- they are withdrawn. They avoid eye contact and seem to have more than their share of behavioral problems, and are often angry or fearful instead of being peaceful and trusting. Some children act shy in order to avoid revealing a self they don't like and, in doing so, retreat into a protective shell that prevents them from developing healthy relationships with others.

Parents often worry when their child is quiet in situations where other children are more outgoing. They think, "Is he just shy or does he have emotional problems?" Here's how to tell: A shy child with healthy self-esteem makes eye contact, is polite, and seems happy with himself. He's well-behaved but quiet, a nice child to be around, and people are comfortable with him.

If you think your son is in fact struggling with problems, however, then you should set him up to succeed socially. Discover your child's special something. This self-esteem booster applies at all ages: Find an activity your child enjoys and has a talent for. Is he, say, good at building, drawing, playing a toy musical instrument? Help him to develop that skill and you'll soon find that he's comfortable showing off his special something to other people.

If it's your feeling that your son is simply shy, you can't force him to become more outgoing, but you can create a comfortable environment that helps him to let his personality shine through. Go slowly. Pushing your child too far too fast can backfire and cause him to retreat further into his shell. Try these shyness pull-ups:

Never label a child as shy. If a child were to hear this, he would think something's wrong with him and, as a result, may act even more shy. If a situation requires you to describe your son in his presence, use words like reserved, private, quiet, thoughtful or cautious.

Frame your child positively. Picturing your child in an uplifting manner is called positive framing. If you think of him in the terms listed above, he'll sense how you think of him and will begin to model his behavior to match your perception. And if you've been apologizing for your child's shyness, this should break you of the habit. At one of our son Mathew's parent-teacher conferences, the teacher said about him, "He sure is shy, isn't he?" We replied, "Mathew is reserved." Later, the teacher said, "Mathew is very quiet," to which we responded, "He's very focused." Once the teacher realized that we didn't see Mathew as shy, she, too, started looking beneath his apparent shyness and saw the interesting child underneath.

Ease into strangers. If your son is going to be visiting strangers or relatively new acquaintances, have him bring along a prop, such as a favorite game, that can act as a bridge for communication. It's important for you to greet strangers happily, because, once your child sees that you're happy relating to the new person, he'll probably join in at his own pace. For example, when I meet new parents in my office, I'm careful not to come on too strong (when possible, ask the "strangers" to do this as well), especially if I see a toddler lower her chin to her chest, put her thumb in her mouth, or dart behind her mother. I greet the mother and chat with her. The child takes her cues from Mom, so once I'm Mom-approved, the toddler will soon feel more comfortable talking to me.

Match your child with playmates who have compatible temperaments. Try to find a playmate who you know your child will like, preferably one who's a year or two older, a caring child who you suspect will know how to draw out your child when playing together. It's important to invite this child over to your house, since your son will be more comfortable relating on his own turf. Keep in mind that your job as a social chairman is to act as a facilitator, which means not doing things for your child but setting up social situations that help your child succeed.

Once your child believes in himself and believes that you believe in him, his social skills will naturally flow. Your flower, like my Mathew, will naturally open up and blossom.