DEAR ABBY: I think your response to "Outgoing Aunt in Texas" (July 16) about the shy 12-year-old girl was misguided. The aunt felt "Tammy's" parents should "make" her come to the phone and speak to her. You felt the child's behavior was rude and said perhaps her mother was covering for her.
Being shy or overly sensitive is an inborn personality trait that can be very disturbing. Forcing a shy person to do something uncomfortable may make the problem worse. Talking on the phone is one of the hardest things for a shy person because he or she can't read the other person's face or body language.
Many l2-year-olds feel awkward in social situations, particularly if they are shy. A loving family member should try to be sensitive to this and not force the child to do something he or she is not comfortable doing. It's possible that Tammy may have a hard time talking to this aunt if she asks Tammy embarrassing questions or makes comments that are hurtful. If that's the case, then Tammy's mom is doing the right thing by trying to protect her. -- SHY M.D. IN TENNESSEE
DEAR SHY M.D.: Thank you for offering another perspective. Readers who shared their experiences helped me to view this with a fresh perspective. My newspaper readers comment:
DEAR ABBY: Twelve-year-old daughters have a terrible fear of criticism, a fear of failure and a fear of being made fun of by adults and peers. "Outgoing Aunt" sounds heavy-handed to me. I have to wonder what she might have said in the past (or how she said it) that has made Tammy so reluctant to even be in the same room with her. Tammy's mom is right to "cover for her." -- I WAS THE SAME 12-YEAR-OLD
DEAR ABBY: It bothered me that "Outgoing Aunt" was so determined and aggressive about speaking to Tammy. Has this aunt been unkind to her in the past? I think the aunt should back off and stop demanding to speak to the child through doors and on the phone. Perhaps the girl isn't shy or rude -- just a great judge of character. -- USED TO BE A SHY NIECE
DEAR ABBY: You're correct in saying Tammy's behavior may be anxiety-based. There is a childhood anxiety disorder called Selective Mutism in which an expectation to speak can cause a child extreme panic. It results in temporary physical paralysis of the vocal cords, and can render a child unable to cry or communicate distress when severely injured.
These children can speak just fine in some situations but not in all others, which can be misunderstood as willful behavior. One of the most common situations in which a child cannot speak is with a close friend or relative.
I had SM as a child and I helped my son find successful treatment for it. Without treatment, Tammy is at a heightened risk for depression, panic attacks, agoraphobia, substance abuse and more. I now speak about this disorder to spread awareness and help others locate resources to seek treatment. -- ANN SANDER IN HOUSTON