You and your child are very excited about attending a birthday party. However, when you arrive there, your child will not talk to anyone, looks at the floor, and clings to your leg. They act like they don't want to be there at all. Does this scenario sound familiar?
All children can experience shyness at some point. Shyness, or feelings of discomfort or inhibition in social situations, is a common issue with young children. As a parent, you want to see your child grow socially and developmentally. You may be worried that shyness will cause your child to miss out on activities and friendships. While, researchers suspect that there may be a genetic component to shyness, past experiences may also play an important role.
Parents and others who work with children frequently attempt to involve shy children in activities because they know that shy kids are missing out on social and developmental experiences. However, it is also important to help these children overcome shyness, because some of them will not outgrow it. Some become shy teens and adults.
There are no precise guidelines for when you should seek professional help for your shy child. If shyness is particularly troublesome or if the shyness causes significant social impairment, like refusing to speak at school, or refusing to join groups or sports, a professional evaluation may be needed.
Ordinary shyness should not interfere with your child's ability to grow and develop socially or participate in activities. Social anxiety disorder is generally overlooked in childhood and thought to be extreme shyness, or even depression. More often than not, social anxiety disorder develops at an early age, not during adolesence as is commonly thought.
There are a number of techniques that you can use to help your child overcome shyness. Here are just a few important ways that you can help:
Try to find a balance that allows a supportive environment. Parents can sometimes be overprotective. This may make your child feel like you are being judgemental and judgemental behavior from parents can often reinforce the child's perception that they are being judged by everyone else and increase the shyness. Overprotectiveness can also make it seem that there are dangers your child is missing and there may be a reason to avoid interaction with others. It's possible that your child may like to play alone, read, or just listen. Support your child's many other strengths and slowly work on buiding confidence to overcome shy behaviors.
Set reasonable goals for children to overcome shyness and help them to achieve these goals. It is acceptable if children make only gradual progress toward becoming more comfortable in social situations with encouragement.
An important first step is for parents to anticipate when a child will exhibit shyness. Try tackling shyness in small steps by setting a goal that your child can attain, or by practicing social situations that may be encountered. For example, if your child has trouble meeting people, start small by practicing introductions. The next time you go out, allow your child to make an introduction to a friend or neighbor. Positive responses help build confidence, and will allow you to move to the next step.
Offering a reward in exchange for meeting the goal is one of the best motivators for helping your child to change behavior. However, if the goal isn't met and no reward was earned, feedback is still very important. Taking time to praise any small progress and effort toward overcoming shyness is very helpful.
Overcoming shyness is a balance between not being overly protective and not being overly pushy. Although it is important for parents to help children to make small social accomplishments, it is also important not push your child into uncomfortable situations. Parents may run into more resistance if they push their children too hard. The key is to expect gradual improvement.
When describing your child, refrain from using the shy label. Using the word shy as a description may encourage your child to think and act that way. Of course, family, friends and others may still innocently make remarks in front of your child about their shyness. You can downplay the shyness by stating that your child isn't shy, but takes some time to get warm up to others.
It is helpful to empathize with your child's feelings of shyness. If you were shy as a child and overcame this behavior, share your story with your child. It is also important for parents to reassure children that feeling comfortable in various social situations takes practice. Reading children's books about shyness to children is another way parents can talk about shyness.
Enlisting the help of caregivers and teachers will give your efforts the most impact. Share which techniques are working and which are not to help your child overcome shyness, and work together toward gradually decreasing their shyness.
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
Mental Health America
Canadian Psychological Association
Mental Health Canada
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FAQ: How can I help a shy child? Illinois Early Learning Project website. Available at: http://illinoisearlylearning.org/faqs/shy.htm. Accessed June 30, 2017.
Idleman J. Helping children with shyness. Hand In Hand website. Available at: https://www.handinhandparenting.org/article/helping-children-with-shyness. Accessed June 30, 2017.
Miller SR, Tserakhava V, Miller CJ. "My child is shy and has no friends: what does parenting have to do with it?". J Youth Adolesc. 2011;40(4):442-452.
Rosenthal J, Jacobs L, Marcus M, Katzman MA. Beyond shy: when to suspect social anxiety disorder. J Fam Pract. 2007;56(5):369-374.
Shyness in children. Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics website. Available: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/gradeschool/Pages/Shyness-in-Children.aspx. Updated November 21, 2015. Accessed June 30, 2017.
Social anxiety disorder. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115906/Social-anxiety-disorder. Updated November 8, 2016. Accessed June 30, 2017.
Last reviewed June 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 6/30/2017