Shy as a teenager is normal

Mr. Stöckli, how do you help shy children?

Eight percent of the School children are overly shyfor a long time. Out of the constant fear of being judged badly, they usually behave passively in class - with fatal consequences, says Georg Stöckli. The educational scientist about mute observers, overprotective parents and particularly stubborn inhibitors.

Interview: Evelin Hartmann
Images: Daniel Winkler / 13 Photo

A constant whisper and clatter fills the large hall, students chat, order coffee and croissants. "Oh, I imagined it differently," says Georg Stöckli, who suggested the atrium of the University of Zurich as the location for this interview. "Otherwise there are always tables and chairs here." Today, however, a stand-up aperitif is served here. Educators and journalists know how to help each other, occupy one of the bistro high tables standing around and hold the conversation standing up.

Mr. Stöckli, many children are shy. Is this personality trait even a problem?

It depends on how pronounced the shy behavior is. Shyness is basically the fearfulness of a person when establishing interpersonal relationships. Shyness, as long as it does not cause suffering, is not a mental disorder, but an expression of a person's temperament. Many, especially younger children, behave cautiously in unfamiliar situations, especially when a child is going to kindergarten or school. That usually passes when it has got used to the new teacher and the classroom.

When is a child too shy?

If the first grader, to stick to this example, even though he would like to make friends, holds back even after weeks and rarely seeks contact with his classmates and rarely or not at all verbally participates in class. To put it scientifically: when his avoidance behavior is more pronounced than his approach behavior.

Why do children behave this way?

Overly shy boys and girls are afraid of being judged negatively, laughed at and ridiculed. They are afraid of not being enough and of failing to meet the expectations of others. "I am not enough as a person." This fear makes shy children feel uncomfortable, tense, and inhibited about getting involved in a game, for example. You remain in the role of the silent observer.

What is behind this fear?

A badly damaged self-confidence. The result is the avoidance of social contact, as well as inadequate participation in class. These children make themselves small, speak only very softly, if at all, have no really noticeable handshake, avoid eye contact, and answer questions with a shrug with “I don't know”. Which is often rated negatively by outsiders.

According to the motto: "If nothing comes out, there is nothing in it."

Shy people don't just lack the right script for social appearances; the problem is fundamentally deeper. Often they know the appropriate dialogues and what one could say very well, but they refrain from uttering the sentences and remarks because they do not feel justified and too insignificant to bring their opinion into a situation. Or they fear that they will be contradicted, which would immediately put them to shame.

But aren't there also shy people who skilfully cover up their inhibitions?

That's right. Many actors are actually extremely shy people, even though they are on stage in front of an audience every day. But there they just play their part. Shy people can acquire extraverted behavior as they get older. Even the class clown ultimately only found one way to present himself to others. But he does not enter into any serious contacts with it.

Can't these kids make friends?

Let's say it is very difficult for them because their social distrust is so strong. The slightest sign of aversion or rejection from the chosen one is interpreted as rejection and leads to withdrawal. This is why shy children usually have few friends who are very important to them and from whom they expect a lot.

How many children are we talking about who have had this?

At first, a third of the boys and girls in kindergarten are noticeably shy. In primary school, around 16 percent of the students in a given year are perceived as shy. By the way, girls and boys are equally affected. This shyness diminishes over time in many of those affected. In around 8 percent, however, the inhibitions and fear of rejection persist. If these children still cannot catch up in adolescence and remain isolated, then their shyness stabilizes. Then there is a high probability that you will remain isolated as an adult.

Is Shyness Inherited?

During my research I have observed that in most cases the parents were already shy. That was also the statement of the mothers and fathers in our courses: "I used to be the same." Let me explain the connection as follows: There is an inhibition system and an approach system, and depending on how the assessments are, either one or the other is activated. In the case of shy people, the threshold is lower and inhibitions are activated earlier.

How do you have to understand that?

The American and developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan held up baby mobiles in the 1980s. Some were interested and reacted with grips and chuckles, while others turned away crying. These charms were too much for her. These children have such a low stimulus threshold that they are quickly overwhelmed by external stimuli.

And is this low threshold the genetic component?

Yes, it is inherited from parents. As has been shown, children in particular who have a lower stimulus threshold towards strangers are particularly prone to later shyness. Whether it comes to that depends heavily on the educational environment. Parents who used to be shy themselves often react anxiously and overprotectively and thus increase the child's tendency to inhibit. Shyness can be inherited and brought up at the same time.

What do children with a higher stimulus threshold do better?

Much more has to happen to upset these children. They can structure their actions better and align them with what is really happening, while children with a low stimulus threshold react (prematurely) to signals. For shy people it is the case that the “other person's gaze” primarily signals judgment and thus threat - not interest and benevolence.

Do shy people also have strengths - those who are less shy are lacking?

Shy people are often described as very empathetic, they are good listeners and observers. And don't get me wrong, inhibitions shouldn't be viewed negatively either. If there were more inhibitions, our world would certainly be poorer by a few conflicts. The only problem is that these inhibitions arise in situations that would be crucial for the shy person's personal "advancement".

So shy people fall short of their possibilities. Such behavior is fatal when it comes to school.

Unfortunately. These children remain passive in class, do not participate and can therefore not show what they are actually able to achieve. Your grades are worse than they would be without this shy behavior. Many teachers react annoyed to these children who do not express themselves. Other children and adolescents have fine antennae for such a mood: "He or she is different from us." In an unfavorable environment, this can lead to bullying.

"My wish is that specialists work regularly with these children in their schools."

In your books you speak of the "forgotten children".

In order for lessons to take place, those students who are disturbing must first be immobilized. In the process, the quiet, reserved children perish - or are even desired in their passive behavior. They don't make a fuss, they are calm. As a result, these children's problems are not seen. What the shy need is an environment of familiarity. Unlike at home, this familiarity does not exist in school, and the class size means that the teachers are not able to create familiarity.

It would be particularly important in school that the teachers succeed in building a trusting relationship.

Unfortunately, these children already hear from teachers in kindergarten that they should participate better, which does not exactly lead to an improvement. If the parents then send out such signals, it gets really bad: "Do, be, do." For the child this means: "The way you are, you are not good". And of course that is a fatal message.

What could teachers do instead?

It would be important for teachers to discuss with the children how they can be more involved in the classroom and find a way to support the child. For example, upcoming lectures could be discussed together in advance. Let the child understand that others are afraid of speaking in front of the class and that this is perfectly normal. You should convey to him that you accept it in his essence, but want to take it further step by step.

A time consuming thing.

It's not that time-consuming. Teachers can do that briefly with a shy child two to three times a week at the end of the lesson.

In your role as head of the Child and School Research Center at the University of Zurich, you developed “Social Fitness Training”. A program to help shy children open up in school and leave their inhibitions behind.

During my research on this topic, parents kept asking me: "What can we do about the shyness of our son, our daughter?" That's when I realized that research was not enough - and I developed this program in which we worked with the children at our university so that they could live up to the expectations that were placed on them. It doesn't really take much: get in touch occasionally, get involved, participate, don't stand aside during the break, but do something together with others. Families from all over German-speaking Switzerland have come to us for these courses. Unfortunately, they are no longer available today.

For this reason, among other things, this spring you published the book “Socially fit - SoFiT! Encouragement against inhibitor dwarfs. Social work in schools: A training program for socially anxious students »published ...

... to give it to social workers and curative teachers in schools. I would like these specialists to work regularly with shy children at their school.

"As long as it does not cause suffering, shyness is not a disorder."

As a father or mother of a shy child, what can I do?

First of all, you should listen to your child. Statements like "everyone else in the class are stupid" already indicate that something is wrong. Because that can't be. A school class is basically the best place to make friends because you spend time with the same people over and over again.

Should you encourage your child to reach out to others?

As the mother or father of an affected child, it is worth asking: How distant am I myself from other people? If you tell your child that it is actually quite simple, but does not practice it himself, then that is a contradiction that the child can see through. Of course, it is part of the process to invite another child over to your home every now and then, to eat together and to show your child that you can be relaxed in these situations. Such table situations are very suitable for this: the child is present, but does not have to act actively. This is a good start.

For your program you have developed the encouragement that helps the shy child to fight against the so-called inhibitor.

This inhibitor is a very stubborn dwarf (laughs). My aim was to separate the shyness from the person of the child. It is the inhibitor who makes life difficult for the shy child. But with the help of the encourager, the inhibitor can be fought. I advise parents to become the encouragers of their children and to experience situations with them after which they can say: "But now you were really brave!" And: "You are much braver than you think!" And that can then be a connection point to your own encouragement.

«Encouragement against inhibitor dwarfs»

Georg Stöckli developed a training program that helps shy children overcome their inhibitions and fears. The program was tried out with pupils in fourth to sixth grades. The final evaluation showed that these children felt more courageous after training than before. In ten training units, exercises are offered which, on the one hand, enable the children to recognize their own inhibitions. With the help of the inhibitor figure, children can think about the causes of their problems. On the other hand, the children are asked to overcome their passivity and show initiative. A personal encourager helps the children.

Georg Stöckli: Socially fit - SoFiT! Encouragement against inhibitor dwarfs. Social work in schools: A training program for socially fearful students. Lehrmittelverlag Zurich, 2016.

Continue reading: