Step 1: Challenges in Specifying Expectation (continued)
Our seven-year-old daughter, Melinda, is very shy and has no self-esteem, especially at school. How can we help her feel better about herself?
You have raised concerns about both shyness and self-esteem. Sometimes these two are linked, but not always, so I will discuss them separately.
Generally self-esteem is directly connected to an individual’s own experience of her capacity to deal effectively with the world around her. Because of that, the more successes Melinda has, the better she will feel about herself. Your home program provides a very straightforward way for you to define age-appropriate responsibilities. When Melinda is successful, you can then provide honest praise and material benefits for her successes as evidence to her of her abilities. With reasonable success, over time – perhaps not all that much time – Melinda is likely to begin seeing herself in a new, more positive light. Central to this is for her to see you basing your praise on real behaviors, not just on your wish to be supportive, which she might discount because “parents have to say that.”
For some children who appear shy, seeing themselves succeed will increase their confidence, and they will interact more capably, and therefore they may no longer seem so shy.
At the same time, some shy children seem to be happy and to get along fine. Observe Melinda carefully over a period of time to see if shyness itself is causing her any unhappiness. Some parents who were themselves shy suppose their children are as sad as they remember being, and they may work hard to solve a problem that may not be a big deal for their children. In fact, the parents’ extra effort could backfire because focus on shyness could convince the child there really is something wrong. Thus, while shyness can be a very big burden for some children, some children seem to be shy by nature. Even with help to be more comfortable with others, some may never become outgoing. Watching and listening to how the child feels, both during interactions with peers and while alone, may be a help in deciding how much attention to give to this issue – though it can be difficult to be sure even after careful observation.
Fortunately, one of the strengths of the home program approach is that you don’t have to know with certainty how distressed Melinda is about being shy. By carefully designing your program to start where your child is, you can encourage her without burdening her with extra worries. Because the program amounts to an invitation to achieve whatever you define as success behaviors, Melinda can progress at her own pace, and she may come to attempt new interactions with others, free of undue pressure or pushing.
You can encourage Melinda to interact more with other children by defining exactly what you hope for her to do. Take care to assure that what you are asking is realistically reachable, basing each step on your observations of Melinda’s past behavior. An example of a first-step target behavior item for a child who appears to have few or no peer interactions might be:
Samantha Jane, you are successful when you learn the name of one of your classmates.
For a child who seems to know her classmates and the neighbor children but seems to spend all her time alone, an item might be something like:
Destiny, you are successful when you play with Monica for 15 minutes the next time she and her mother come to visit.
Later on, or maybe sooner for a child who seems to be ready, this sort of item may be appropriate:
Briana, you are successful when you invite one of the neighbor children over to play.
Start with your first item where Melinda is and add a small challenge to encourage going a bit beyond what is usual for her. Base your choices on what you have seen her do and on your sense about what she appears capable of doing even when she seems reluctant.
Several times here I used the word “encourage” because these programs are structured to give each child a choice of whether to complete each task. Unlike some approaches, we do not hassle a child for failing to complete a task. Rather, we attempt to make it good for the child to succeed. In the case of a shy child learning that it can be okay to interact with others, we can carefully define the expectations, based on what seems realistic. The child, then, can elect to comply and earn your praise and credits toward a tangible reward or not to comply and simply earn no praise or credits. Because of this, you need not be so concerned that you may be pushing your child beyond her limits. Of course if she never completes the item as defined, you will need to reconsider the level of expectation, lowering it to be more realistic or, perhaps, upping the number of credits that Melinda can earn for succeeding.
If after all of this you remain concerned, I’d suggest you discuss the situation with your child’s physician or with a mental health professional. This step can help you determine whether your daughter will benefit from some sort of counseling intervention or whether she may simply be temperamentally reserved in her interpersonal interactions.