Dear Dr. Samson,
I have an 8-year-old boy who is very shy. He does very well in school and local sports teams. My relatives tell me he has low self-esteem, which causes him to be shy. Does shyness always equal low self-esteem?
To answer your question in general, I would have to say shyness does not always indicate low self-esteem. A child with an introverted personality can step out of his shell and perform, to achieve specific tasks. The extrovert can contain himself to achieve a desired goal if the environment indicates a quieter demeanor. When these traits seemingly can't be controlled and the child is unable to function as he desires, then the shyness or boisterousness is a problem.
An example may make my point clearer. An 8-year-old boy may be shy with relatives and family friends but goes out for and makes a Little League baseball team. Then he realizes he must give a talk to his class so he can get a good grade for an assignment. He musters his courage and presents the talk before the class. He was not comfortable with the task but to achieve his grade he did it. At the next family gathering, he returns to his shy posture. Thus the child is able to suppress his introversion, achieve a goal or goals, then resume his normal personality. If he felt it was desirable or necessary to be less shy, he could do it. Contrast the prior scenario to the following. The little boy dearly wants to play baseball and get an "A" in school. Despite his inner desires and appropriate encouragement from his parents, he is unable to overcome his shyness and does not try to make the team or to complete his school assignment.
This child may not be able to lift the veil of shyness for several reasons. One of the major causes is, in fact, low self-esteem. Because he sees himself as a failure he does not want to risk further failure and thus ventures nothing.
On the other hand, we must look at the extrovert who has low self-esteem. This child is also fearful of failure but does not hide in the fog of shyness. Instead, he acts out inappropriately and by this diversion never has to try to achieve his desired goals. Thus, low self-esteem can present itself as incapacitating shyness or hyperactive aggressiveness.
If your son truly does well in sports and scholastics, his shyness is an expression of his personality and not low self-esteem. As parents, we must remember that we are critical in the formation of our children's self image. Whether you believe basic personality traits are present at birth or acquired early in life, as parents we must face the fact that self image is molded to a great degree by how we interact with our child. Appropriate praise for truly significant accomplishments is critical. Effusive compliments for routine or ordinary acts does not raise self-esteem but destroys the parent's credibility. Children know when they have worked hard to achieve something, and thus deserve recognition.
One of the easiest ways to destroy self-esteem is to not accept the child's basic personality traits; that is, try to make an introvert into an outgoing, gregarious child, or to subdue an extrovert unnecessarily. We must guide them so the expression of their personality is appropriate, while not indicating their basic personality itself is inappropriate. Accept and encourage your child. Don't try to change the basic personality makeup any more than you would try to make a left-handed child right-handed. The world needs both the gregarious and the shy, the extrovert and the introvert; but it needs them with good self-esteem.