For a shy child, middle school is likely to be the start of the hardest time of his life. ''That's when there's all this pressure to fit in socially," says psychologist Bernardo J. Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast. ''For a child whose shyness gets in the way, it's like turning up the volume, intensifying the experience of feeling self-conscious and inadequate."
Hold on. Worse than all those times as a 3- or 4-year-old standing on the side of the playground watching instead of joining in? Worse than the birthday parties he went to at 5 or 6, where he only left your side to play as everyone else was going home? Worse than when she attended gymnastics class but hardly ever talked to anyone but the teacher?
Exactly. Those kinds of moments tend to make a parent crazy. They don't necessarily mean a child is unhappy.
''God, no," says pre-eminent research psychologist Jerome Kagan of Harvard.
Nonetheless, it's hard not to worry. ''We live in a society that values being outgoing and competitive. In China, shy, quiet kids are the most popular. In our country, that just isn't true," says Missouri psychologist Barbara G. Markway, co-author of ''Nurturing the Shy Child" (St. Martin's).
Shyness covers a range of feelings that describe ''some kind of discomfort or inhibition in social or performance situations," Markway says. At one extreme is social anxiety disorder, where children become sick with fear and need professional help. At the other is the child who has one or two best friends, isn't in the social thick of things and thinks that's just fine. In the middle are children Markway and others call ''slow to warm up." ('' 'Shy' is a label," she says. ''Avoid it.")
A month after starting school or a new activity, ''a slow-to-warm-up child is still tentative, taking her time, not fully joining in, until, little by little, she does," says developmental psychologist Myrna B. Shure of Drexel University in Philadelphia. After three months, this child looks like any other. The truly shy child, on the other hand, is still on the periphery three months later, perhaps experiencing stomach aches or other physical symptoms of anxiety. Shure is author of ''Thinking Parent, Thinking Child" (McGraw Hill), which has a section on shy children.
The slow-to-warm-up child feels cautious or uncomfortable in some unfamiliar situations. The period of discomfort can last two weeks, 20 minutes, or 2 minutes. ''The point is, at some point, it vanishes," says Kagan, who was the first researcher to identify traits in infancy that predict shyness. His newest book, with Nancy Snidman, is ''The Long Shadow of Temperament" (Harvard Press).
Kagan goes so far as to say that the degree to which parents intervene to help a child overcome shyness is an ''ethical decision: Do I want my child to be maximally sociable or is this not a bad trait to have, assuming it's not debilitating?"
So here's the first question to answer: Who's unhappy? You or your child?
''If you were shy as a child and now you recognize the traits in your own child, you want to spare her what you went through, so maybe you worry excessively or push her more than she needs or wants," says educational consultant and psychologist Marilyn Buckler of Lincoln. ''If you were a cheerleading, outgoing type, you may be puzzled by your child. You can't relate." This parent may unknowingly be hypercritical of a child, or constantly disappointed in him. Either way, it can fuel feelings of inadequacy and incompetence: ''I'm not OK the way I am."
Shure says, ''It's not that a social, gregarious parent creates a shy child. But an overly gregarious parent can make a child afraid to speak up."
Buckler, formerly a psychologist in the Carlisle schools and now a consultant with the Open Circle social competency program at Wellesley College, says parents who attack shyness head-on (''You're too shy!") can make a slow-to-warm-up child so self-conscious he turns shy.
These specialists urge parents to put aside expectations of what you thought your child would be like and accept him for who he is. Pushing him too far (''Of course you'll sing at the Passover seder!") can make him feel exposed, violated, and ultimately angry with you. Rescuing him too often (''I'll tell the teacher you can't give a book report.") means he's less likely to develop coping strategies.
That's key. Carducci says the child who reaches middle school without any coping strategies is the one most likely to get hit by the double whammy of needing to fit in and having no way to do so. This plays out differently for boys and girls.
''Boys who are shy tend to take more social risks as a way to get the girls' attention. They act out," by drinking, for instance. he says. ''Shy girls tend to fall under the social influence of someone, girl or boy, in order to be accepted," he says. While that can sometimes be protective, it more likely leads them to risky behaviors. Think of it this way, Carducci says:
''If you're an adult and you go to a dinner party and there are 13 forks at your setting and you don't know what to do, you follow the lead of someone who looks like they know what they are doing. If you're a shy kid who is socially uncertain, you follow the lead of kids who look like they know what they are doing. That makes you more vulnerable to peer influences." Carducci is author of ''The Shyness Breakthrough, A No-Stress Plan to Help Your Shy Child Warm Up, Open Up and Join the Fun" (Rodale).
The goal is to empower a child to figure out how to help himself:
As toddlers and preschoolers, slow-to-warm-up children tend to tantrum more than others. This often gets labeled as oppositional behavior or stubbornness. ''Really," says Markway, ''they're just scared inside." Look for small ways to expand a comfort zone: ''I notice at our playgroup that you like to play just with me. Next time, do you want to play next to Mary?"
By second or third grade, gently put observations into words: ''I notice you're a person who likes to watch how kids are playing before you join in. I was like that at your age, too." If she says, ''Megan just runs right up," then you can begin to brainstorm: ''People are different, aren't they?" Anticipate difficult situations with her. Rehearse going to a birthday party. Role-play show and tell.
With 9- to 12- year-olds, there's a new level of self-awareness; now you can be more direct: ''I notice you're a person who takes time to warm up to new situations. That's an OK way to be. But if you ever want strategies, to try something new, I might have some ideas." Carducci recommends ''wait & hover," where a child pays attention to someone she thinks might be a friend in order to figure out what she can bring to the interaction: ''Have you seen this fashion magazine?" ''Want to listen to this song on my I-Pod?"
For teens, ''Stay involved in your child's life," Carducci says. ''Be persistent and patient. Talk about how you handle social situations. Bring stories home from work. Talk about your adolescence. The idea is for them to see they are not suffering alone." If he doesn't respond or shuts you out, he adds, ''Know that getting through to a teen takes time."
Shure urges parents not to overreact. If a 5-year-old lingers at the slide waiting for someone to offer him a turn, is he troubled his turn never comes, or are you? ''These are kids who need to check things out before they are comfortable," not just with the socialization itself but with the very idea of it, says Shure. What looks like stubbornness or procrastination is part of the process for them.
She describes watching 4-year-old Tanya hover at a preschool's pretend play area as children played house. She was too timid to enter the play on her own or to ask to be included. The teacher intervened: ''Tanya would like to help."
''Tanya literally shrank," says Shure. ''She wasn't ready. It was the teacher's idea, not hers." The teacher backed off, and for weeks Tanya was an observer, not unhappy, just watchful. One day, she piped up: ''If you need a fireman, I'm a fireman."
''Quick!" said one of the girls. ''The house is on fire."
Tanya was a player, and she'd made it happen all by herself.
Contact Barbara Meltz at email@example.com.