As a parent, you want your child to be happy and successful in all walks of life. Seeing them thrive in social situations can give you a warm sense of satisfaction. A kid who makes friends easily is likely doing well, and being sociable can be an asset for them as they’re growing up.
But some children are naturally prone to shyness. They get quieter in social situations, they dislike meeting strangers, or they find it hard to greet people or engage in conversation. Children like this are generally attentive, careful, and kind. But sometimes, unusual levels of shyness become a source of worry for parents. They may feel that they are doing something wrong and that they need to change the way they are raising their child.
Let’s talk about shy kids, and when and how parents need to do something about it.
When Does a Shy Child Need Help?
Being shy is a temperamental trait, which means that it starts at a very young age. In fact, it is possible to notice the first signs of shyness as early as at four months (LoBue 2019). Babies who react badly to a hanging mobile, or who get distressed by sudden noises, generally grow into shy children. They then become shy teenagers and shy adults.
Of course, nothing is set in stone, and it’s possible to work on the ways one interacts with the world. But is shyness a problem that needs fixing?
Pay Attention to the Consequences
Temperamental traits don’t tend to just go away over time. According to developmental psychologist Dr. Robert Coplan, they form the “building blocks of our personality” (Coplan 2016). He talks about early childhood shyness here:
Coplan explains that it’s good for humanity as a whole to have variability – it’s best if there is a balance between shy and outgoing people. He emphasizes that shyness isn’t in itself something that needs to be changed, and it often comes with useful traits such as being careful and thinking ahead.
The problem is that extreme shyness can interfere with the experiences that children need to grow up happy and well-adjusted. For example, shyness sometimes makes it difficult for kids to do well in school. A shy child may find it difficult to respond to questions, even if they know the right answer. They may have a hard time building a relationship with their teachers and other adults they interact with.
Even more importantly, this trait can keep a child from making friends. And sometimes, other children react with hostility when meeting someone shy. This makes further interactions even more intimidating.
If you think your child is missing out on important or pleasant experiences because of their shyness, it could be time for you to take action.
What Should You Do?
First, it’s important to keep in mind that you don’t want to change your child’s personality. Instead, you want to help them learn how to navigate the world without holding themselves back from the important things.
Here are some of the things you can do to help your child deal with social situations they find stressful. These tips can all be used by parents with shy toddlers, but they work with older children too, though your approach may need to be altered depending on your child’s age.
1. Stay calm.
Shy children tend to be relatively well-behaved (Sanson 1996), but they can still make things difficult for you. It can cause the parent social embarrassment when their kid doesn’t behave appropriately in social situations. Additionally, some children react to distressing situations by becoming sullen, irritable, or throwing a tantrum. But whatever the child may be doing, it’s important for the parent to remain calm and collected. Remember that your irritation can only make the situation worse.
2. Acknowledge your child’s feelings…
In addition to remaining calm, it’s crucial not to be dismissive or derisive of your child’s fears. After all, you want them to talk to you about what they are going through. Telling them that it doesn’t matter and that they’re overreacting will make them hesitant to talk at all. Some parents try to embarrass their child into becoming more sociable, but this doesn’t work in the long term, and it can do major damage to the parent-child relationship.
3. … but don’t be overprotective.
The other extreme is when a parent allows their child to avoid all uncomfortable interactions. It’s an understandable impulse, but it can harm the child’s worldview. If you act in a way that seems to confirm your child’s fears about social situations, the fear will grow. Some experts argue that experiencing stressful moments can be good for a child’s development (Lents 2016). You want them to develop coping mechanisms of their own, and that can’t happen if they’re kept away from everything that distresses them.
4. Help them break down the problem into smaller parts.
What should you do if your child is hesitant to join a social situation? First, acknowledge your child’s emotions and explain that you want to help them work past those feelings. Then, try to find out what exactly your child is worried about. For example, some children dislike meeting relatives because they’re not sure how they’re supposed to address them. A simple disambiguation can help give your child the confidence to face a social interaction that worries them.
Even when the problem is broader than that, you and your child can work on scripts together. If a shy kid knows what to say, they will be less worried about making a mistake. Again, it’s important not to berate them for overthinking things. You can also help them find alternatives when a specific action is especially distressing. They might not want to say hi when they meet somebody but they can agree to offer a wave, and so on.
Breaking the problem down can also alert you to situations where you do need to interfere. Sometimes, children become quieter and more fearful in response to bullying or some other ongoing problem. Discovering what your child is thinking lets you take the appropriate steps going forward.
5. Offer praise.
Meeting strangers, speaking up in a crowd, performing on a stage – all of these situations can be scary for a shy child (or a shy adult, for that matter). But it is very helpful for parents to acknowledge that the child went through with it anyway. Celebrate their victory along with them.
6. Keep paying attention.
Shyness is very widespread, and it is generally not something you need to worry about. However, research shows that shy children are 2-3 times likelier than average to develop social anxiety in their early to mid teens (Hitchcock, Chavira & Stein 2009), so it is important to keep a close eye on how they are doing.
In milder cases of social anxiety, the above advice should be very helpful. But you may need to consult with an expert if there are no noticeable changes, or if your child exhibits other symptoms (like the ones listed here by the National Social Anxiety Center).
7. Don’t call your kid shy.
It’s useful to think and talk about your child’s shy tendencies, as you can plan ahead and make some common situations less stressful. It also helps to discuss it with your partner or other important adults in your child’s life, making sure you’re all on the same page.
However, it’s better not to call your child shy when speaking to them. They may take the label to heart and it can impact their behavior (Hollman 2015). Always keep in mind that shyness is just one part of their personality and the way they relate to the world.
Explore the World Together
Children can’t become less shy overnight. It takes time, patience, and dedication to help them blossom into someone who can easily cope with stressful situations.
But you can make their journey as pleasant as possible. Find something your child enjoys and encourage them to keep working on it. Shy children may find it easier to talk about something they like and know well. They also sometimes find it easier to talk with children who have similar interests. Even solitary hobbies can eventually become gateways to an active social life.
You should also keep in mind that your kid will copy your behavior, and you can inspire them to deal with intimidating moments. If you spend quality time together, having fun and interacting with other people, your shy child will relax and become somewhat more outgoing.
- Subtypes of Shy Kids
- 15 Playful Ways Parents Can Help with Shyness
- How to Tell If Your Child Is Shy or Has Social Anxiety
- In Celebration of Shyness