My daughter, Grace, was very young when I began to suspect that she may have inherited my low self-esteem and shyness. Being an introvert myself, when she showed signs of being shy and unsure of herself, I wasn’t quite sure what to do.

When Grace started school, her wellbeing took a turn for the worse. She was so apprehensive about new situations that she would get a “tummy ache” from worrying. The last day of each school year was just as much a reason for apprehension as the first day. She would get out of bed and find me to express her apprehension, sometimes two or three times the night before any important day. Starting a new year of dance class was stressful enough to cause tears. If the dance moves were difficult or the teacher moved along too quickly, Grace knew that she would never learn it. “Never!”  At school, she was leery about participating in sporting events.

What is a mother to do?! I encouraged and encouraged often. I let her know when she was thinking negatively and asked her to replace those thoughts with positive ones. I reminded her of her achievements. I sometimes had to repeat the same encouragement about the same issue over and over again because she would close her ears. As life went on, new problems kept arising and it seemed that it was always a matter of one step forward and two steps backward. Grace was nervous and apprehensive about all situations. I knew that I was in for a long haul!

But in other ways, Grace excelled. Her teachers loved her, she had a mature way of carrying and expressing herself, she had immense empathy for others, and she got honor roll worthy grades in elementary school. 

Then, she was thrown a curve ball when she reached middle school years. Her father and I separated and divorced. Grace and I moved thirty minutes away from her dad’s house. She moved into our new house on Sunday and started her new school on Monday. What a shock to her system! She was so apprehensive about the entire situation that she slept only feet away from me for two weeks. Naturally she missed her Dad. Even though she saw him constantly, enough was never enough. 

Grace did well in her new school despite the abundance of tummy aches. Somehow she developed incredibly thick skin. No matter what adversity she faced at school, no matter what the other girls said to her, Grace shrugged it off. If she had to sit by herself in the lunch room, so be it. When the girls didn’t accept her into their groups, she hung out somewhere in between. I suggested that she go out for band since she wasn’t able to in her old school. She and the band instructor agreed even though she was a full year behind all the other students. She was determined to play drums and took private lessons to catch up with the others. Grace went out for basketball and track, and even though she didn’t excel at either, she insisted on going out year after year. She used to love to bake, and making cupcakes was the ultimate. When she realized she didn’t enjoy these things anymore, she gave them up.

Grace sang around the house constantly and when a natural talent was detected, it was suggested that she take voice lessons. She was game so we hired a private voice teacher. She joined school choir and sings in honor choir. She was encouraged to go out for volleyball and she fell in love with the sport. Grace’s life then became full of practice and lessons and she was dedicated. But when it came to competitions and games, her stage fright would take over. At music contest, she would cry rather than sing. After several attempts with nothing but tears, the teacher would hug her and then move her aside for the next student’s turn. The next year it was the same thing. No one got to hear her beautiful voice and it was heartbreaking! She would falter during volleyball games even though she did so well in practice. So I encouraged and encouraged some more. Did she let these setbacks stop her? No! Her next interest was theatrical and she got parts in the one-act play and the spring musical. She excelled.

Grace was still nervous and had trouble sleeping before starting her junior year in high school. No matter her advancing age, apprehension would reawaken at key times. She practiced extra hard at volleyball, and those athletic advancements led to others. Being on the court so often improved her stage presence and she quelled her fears to the degree that she was awarded a solo for the first choir performance of the school year. When the time came, she approached the microphone and stood tall. She started her long solo and did not appear to be least bit nervous. She sang as I’d heard it at home, but that time it was in front of the huge crowd. I was in the stands shaking with anticipation and filmed it while blinking away tears. I was so proud and so overwhelmingly happy for her that I almost couldn’t stay in my seat. She was doing it! After all the years of struggle, she was actually doing it! Then, ever so slowly, she sang the phrase toward the end of her solo, “I can do it . . . I can do it . . . I can DO IT” which was so ironic because my shy Grace was doing it! When she finished and stepped back, the auditorium erupted with cheers and applause. It was the same loud cheers that she heard the first time she got a kill on the volleyball court, and she’s gotten several since. 

Did continued encouragement make Grace the successful, funny, expressive, empathetic, loving, smart, completely transformed teenager that she is today? Maybe, but I don’t think I can take any credit whatsoever. I think she decided for herself just who she was going to be after she’d had the advantage of some guidance. She was encouraged to try new things and when she found she wasn’t so fond of some things she’d give them up, but she worked hard at the things she does love.

I am not a child psychologist or a parenting expert, but my feeling is that a shy introverted child can excel and come out of their shell once they find their niche. Encourage your shy child to be a student of the world and explore ideas until they find theirs. Browse through stores, read, go to museums, do a science experiment, bake a cake from scratch, walk through nature, tour a factory and see what sparks might be ignited. Be an example and get involved with hobbies. I realize now that Grace learned to love theater because I came out of my shell and got involved with Community Theater several years ago and involved her participation. If at first you don’t succeed in finding an interest or a hobby, just keep searching. Additionally, you cannot avoid situations just because they are difficult for your child. It may hurt to see them struggle, but keep them involved. If will pay off big time in the end. I couldn’t be prouder when I see my daughter so happy doing the things that she loves. Although she is still just modestly satisfied with her achievements, she is willing to admit that yes, she “can do it.” 

Cathy Briley

Cathleen Briley is the mother of two daughters (and one cat) and the author of The Whitmore House series (hauntingly romantic novels) available at Cathleen is the Vice President of the Mayhew Cabin with John Brown's Cave Museum in Nebraska City and the author of The Twelve: A Unique Underground Railroad Saga Spanning 150 Years.