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Breaking the Bondage of Shyness and Fear

December 15, 2000
Girl in toy wagon

Shoshanna was shepherding two small children the other day and noticed that when the little fellow, nearly three years old, asked for something, he reverted to baby talk with a whine. His parents often ignore his requests until he resorts to pitiful baby talk, at which time they are provoked to respond. So, when he is making a request, he has learned to bypass the preliminaries and get down to language that moves people to pay attention to him—baby talk.

When he came to Shoshanna with a request for water, his body language changed. He slumped and swayed as if in a near fainting condition; his head rolled and hung to the side. He pulled on her dress, and when he spoke, his speech was slurred and babyish. He said, “I una dink a wotta.” She asked, “What did you say?” He repeated, “I onna dink a watta.” With no emotion, and a slight note of rejection in her voice, Shohanna said, “I am sorry, I cannot understand you when you talk like that. You will have to speak plainly.” She sounded as if she was giving him one last chance to make an intelligent request before she turned to more important matters. He straightened up a little and tried to speak more plainly. When she saw that he was making a sincere attempt to act his age, she took that for compliance and helped him by asking, “Are you saying you want a drink of water?” Her accent was decidedly English, overly articulated. He watched her mouth stretch into the different shapes as she carefully pronounced the words, and he understood what she wanted him to do. He tried it and was much clearer in his speech. All the slump and drag went out of his body language as he tried to imitate her dignity. Without further ado, she turned to give him his drink of water.

This is a good opportunity to point out something that is easy to miss but so very important. Note that when the little fellow made a sincere effort to change his tone and conform to her leading, Shoshanna immediately gave him his request. She did not take that opportunity of compliance to lecture him on the importance of speaking correctly. He had taken responsibility to yield to her leading, to rise above slovenly habits. If she had rewarded his correct response with a reproving face and brief lecture about speaking correctly, all her efforts would have been in vain, for a three-year-old child has a very short attention span—about three or four seconds. He cannot see the relationship between two events that are separated by thirty seconds, but when two things happen together, the child relates them to each other. It only takes one touch on a hot surface for a child to make the correlation and not touch it again, but if the pain had a thirty-second delay, the child would never make the connection. He would keep touching it and keep getting burned.

If Shoshanna had delayed giving him the water and returned his compliance with a frown and a lecture, the closest thing to his proper speech would have been her negative reaction, so he would have associated her negative response with his actions and concluded that she did not want him to speak plainly. After all, he spoke like an adult and she immediately frowned and punished him with a lecture that lasted fifteen seconds. His shoulders would have slumped and he would have returned to his immature mental state with the baby talk. Instead of making an association between grown up talk and getting water, he would have made an association between his baby mentality and getting the water. Next time he wanted water, he would affect his pitiful, broken demeanor and speak like he did when he was two years old, and everyone rushed to serve him.

Children are what you make them. You can make them shy, withdrawn, weak, and emotionally disturbed, or you can make them stable, intelligent, socially balanced, and confident.

Don’t buy the line that brokenness or weakness is inherited personality. It is all in the kind of example you lay down and how you respond to them. Remember the rule, “Affirm all positive behavior and make all negative behavior unrewarding.”

In our travels we meet many families. I was visiting in a home where a little boy about thirty months old was playing. I looked at him and made a friendly gesture. He jumped up and ran to bury his face into his mother’s skirts. She petted him and very lovingly said, “You are shy, aren’t you.” He squirmed deeper into her understanding embrace, eyeing me accusingly. This little fellow has a sister about four years old, who is also very “shy.” Her parents explain her emotional spells, patting her on the head and saying, “She is a very emotional child.”

She was playing on the floor with another small child. When it came time to go, they were told to put the toys back in the box. Her smaller companion began to clean up, but this little girl responded to the command by looking pitiful and fretful. Eventually she retreated into quiet fretfulness, not picking up the toys. All eyes turned on her parents to see what would happen. True to form, her mother and father joined together to explain their child’s behavior, “She is a very emotional child; she gets upset easily.” And that was it. They have no idea that their sweet little girl is going to hate them when she is fourteen. She will be angry and resentful. They will sigh and say, “I will be glad when she gets married; she is a bad influence on the other children.”

Now learn another lesson. When you label a child’s unpleasant behavior with a name like shy, emotional, or fearful, you legitimize it. Every time you explain that child’s behavior with a defining word, you confirm him as broken, and in so doing, relieve him of the responsibility to act differently. I could take a perfectly stable child and make him shy or fearful within a week. I would watch for the smallest sign of fear or shyness, and respond by placing a loving hand on the child’s shoulder, smiling my most understanding and healing smile, and sympathetically explain his behavior as fear or shyness. The child would cuddle up to me for comfort and I would offer assuring words of concern. After three such experiences the child would get the message loud and clear, “I am a fearful child; I need love and understanding; let me go find something that makes me afraid.”

The child would come to recognize the power this “handicap” afforded him, and he would begin to use it as a means to avoid unpleasant situations and to dominate others. When he didn’t want to pick up toys, he would be confused and fearful. When someone invaded his space and competed for his mother’s attention, he would reject them with symptoms of shyness.

Just as you could do reverse training on a child, causing him to manifest any symptom of weakness, conversely, you can make a weak child strong within the week. Parents get into ruts that perpetuate negative behavior in their children. The rule is, “Make all negative behavior unpleasant and make all positive behavior profitable.”

Parents excuse behavior by calling it personality. Personality is a starting point, not a boundary.

Now there are some children that are truly afraid. We are not talking about those who are absolutely terrified of danger, whether real or imagined. That is another matter and is very rare. We are talking about the social response of fear or shyness that causes the child to retreat to his mother’s security. Without lecturing or spanking the child, you can end this negative behavior.

When Johnny shows shyness or social fear, attempting to withdraw into your embrace, never hold him or reassure him. When he gets behind you, push him away and say something remote and indifferent like, “Don’t get behind me, go play.” Express mild disapproval in your facial features and the tone of your voice. Never protect the child who wants to emotionally nurse. Never affirm his feelings by assisting him in his expressions. Indicate the kind of response you want, and brag on the child’s strength and boldness. As you shove him back into the public, briefly state that he is “a big boy now, and big boys don’t act like that.”

Strength never comes by showing understanding for the weakness. Fear is not overcome by dealing with the fear; it is overcome by DOING the fearful thing. You overcome fear by facing the tiger with your fear and discovering that you can walk away alive. In time you laugh at the tiger, for it was only paper. But if your child flees from the tiger, and you call it fear and then offer sympathy or protection, you legitimize the child’s fear and the paper tiger gets bigger and more threatening every day. If you treat the paper tiger with indifference, the child will feel the same. Wild animals learn what to be afraid of and what to tolerate by watching their parents. What do you want, a pitiful, weak child, cowering for comfort, or a tiger tamer? You will make the child into the image of your own responses.

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10 comments on “Breaking the Bondage of Shyness and Fear”

  1. This is more of a question than a comment. Do you think that it is easier to talk about certain things because you have been a stay at home mom? I actually really like your book and I am just going through it but sometimes I feel like the comments are really geared towards stay at hom mom; like when you said that children are being adopted every day we send them to daycare, etc.

  2. I really appreciate this article. I think through reading other material of yours I realized I was handling my youngest incorrectly and promptly began handling him with more of this kind of encouragement, but it seemed to take a while before he really began to come out of this "shyness". Yet, after some persistence it did work.

  3. I wonder how often shyness is actually a training issue? My own childhood picture: stomach problems, heavy metal poisoning, genuine fear (sins of the fathers passed down?), negative public school input. Seeing fear-related shyness in our toddler, we have prayed long, fought on the gut-health front, and always encouraged boldness in this child. But it's definitely not a training issue over here! God is faithful. We are continually experiencing more of his freedom from fear in my son. But boy would I love to see some articles somewhere about training kids with the genuine fear/emotional turmoil challenge, and praying in faith for their total freedom and healing!! Lots of kids are sick and struggling.

  4. I have struggled with the issue of shyness/fear with my second child for about 1.5 years now. It is very odd. With strangers, and friends in our home, even in public classrooms
    And lectures that we attend- he is very bold and bright and friendly and curious. But when it comes time to drop him off in the church youth area- or in the once-a-week homeschool class he attends- he cries, and sobs and clings to my leg, throwing quite a fit. (He is five and a half now.) if we leave him and his brothers with a sitter or friend- there is no issue. We have attended several churches- it is unrelated to a specific church or individual caretaker. As far as I know there hasn't been a traumatic incident surrounding being dropped off. I have never coddled him- always begin just as you suggest in the article- but every week itnever works and always results in a spanking for disobedience because he will literallyNot stay in the classroom until forced by a spanking. (He is not capable of sitting quietly through a sermon or else I would keep him With me.) every week when I pick him
    Up he is smiling and happy- stating that he is glad he stayed. I am at a total loss at what to do.... Any advice? (Note- he goes in with his little
    Brother- so he isn't "alone"- and his brother has no qualms about being dropped off.)

    1. At five and a half, his reasoning and communication skills should be sufficient for him to tell what the problem is. You may need to bring it up with him during the week, several days removed from an incident, so that it is non-emotional discussion not related to a specific episode.

      1. Thanks for the advice:-) I will try that. He is a 100% visionary boy- so there is often a lot of drama/emotion with him. I will work on discussing it when he is not emotional about the subject.

  5. My little boy is almost two, and refuses to speak to people when he doesn't feel like it. I realize that he is quite young, but I still feel that it is rude. Everyone poo-poos it when I apologize and say "He is just remembering not to talk to strangers", which I always correct with a "We are teaching them its good to talk to strangers, we just don't GO with strangers". I want polite, friendly children, not rude, shy children. Any advice on how to work with small children on speaking when spoken too?

  6. Enjoyed the article and agree to a great degree. However, my sister and I were raised in the same home. We are quite different. I am adopted and the oldest. Always responsible and wanted to know 'why' about everything. I believe a major part of who I am is heredity. Bad things in my raising only made me determined to not allow them to hurt me. I was strong in my reasoning. Just a simple opinion from my life experiences.