Article at a Glance
Our society puts a lot of value on being outgoing. Nobody ever appreciates being called shy. Shy children often struggle with making friends and don’t get as much attention or praise as more social children.
It can be hard for parents to watch their children miss out on things they want to do because of fear. Understandably many parents worry about how to help their children open up more.
People use the word “shy” for a lot of things, so first it is important to figure out what kind of “shy” your child is. Some children are simply reserved while others are struggling with self-confidence.
Some people are not as naturally outgoing or extroverted as others. They have a healthy self-image; they just prefer the company of a good book to a loud party. This is not a bad thing. More introverted personalities make for excellent listeners, loyal friends, deep thinkers, and good students.
According to Bernardo J. Carducci, professor of psychology and director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, “On the surface, introversion looks a lot like shyness. Both limit social interaction, but for differing reasons. The shy want desperately to connect but find socializing difficult. Introverts seek time alone because they want time alone. An introvert and a shy person might be standing against the wall at a party, but the introvert prefers to be there, while the shy individual feels she has no choice.”
There is nothing wrong with being introverted. Many introverts learn how to be more outgoing, but they still need their alone time. Having some time by themselves is an important way for them to recharge their batteries and process their thoughts.
During some stages of development being shy is also very common. For example between the ages of two and four, children experience a stage of stranger anxiety. So even the most outgoing child may hang back a bit when meeting new people.
However for some children shyness is less of a preference or a stage and more of an obstacle. They might worry about failing or displeasing others. They may feel anxious about new situations or meeting new people.
Although being a little shy can be challenging, it is not something to worry too much about. It is actually quite common. According to a 2011 study by the National Institute of Mental Health about half of the children in the United States say that they are shy.
However, even though it is normal, it is still important to help your child learn social skills and coping strategies. Without help, some shy children may become more and more withdrawn. Over time this can become a pattern that is hard to break.
Remember that some children may always feel a little shy inside, but you can help make social situations less painful and make it easier for them to try things outside of their comfort zones.
For some children, shyness may be significantly interfering with their happiness or ability to lead a healthy life. Shyness may be masking a learning disability or your child might be a victim of bullying. Severe shyness may also be caused by an anxiety disorder or other problem. Children can also become suddenly shy after a negative or traumatic experience.
If you are worried about your child’s shyness or behavior, talk to your pediatrician about getting some help.
Regardless of the reasons behind your child’s shyness, here are some things you can do to help foster healthy social skills and to make your child feel more comfortable around others.
New situations and meeting new people can be hard for shy children. They will need a little more time to adjust to new things. Don’t push it, but be supportive and encouraging as they take things at their own pace. For example, if you have signed your daughter up for a dance class you may have to help her gradually get used to staying there by herself.
Give your child plenty of opportunities to practice social skills. Simple things like having your child pay the cashier or ordering a meal at a restaurant will help build confidence. Don’t avoid taking shy children to new places. Being exposed to new things will help them build up confidence and get used to change.
Another way to practice social skills is by setting up playgroups. Try to tailor the group to fit your child. For example, invite children over who you think will help draw your child out. The size of the playgroup can also help. Some children do better with a larger group where they can blend in, but others may do better with smaller groups that aren’t so intimidating. Meeting other children will also help build friendships. Shy children do better when they have a few friends they can rely on.
Role-playing can also be helpful. Teach your children how to pay compliments, join a group conversation, meet new people, ask for help, cope with criticism, use humor, stick up for themselves, share, and show appreciation.
Instead of fixating on what your child is doing wrong, focus on successes—even the smalls ones. If your child does struggle with something, take a moment to talk constructively about things to try next time. Don’t just give all the answers, but give your child a chance to think of solutions.
Afterward, move on and focus on future successes. Letting your child dwell on past failures will only make it harder to behave confidently later.
It helps to know that you aren’t the only one struggling with something. Share with your child times when you may have felt shy and what you did to overcome it.
Children look to their parents for social cues. When children see that their parents are nervous around others, they will naturally assume that there is something to be nervous about. If you are shy yourself, you and your child can work on being more outgoing together. In fact, the best way to learn is by teaching others. You can be each other’s coaches!
On the other hand, if you are naturally outgoing, be sure that you are not dominating conversations. Shy children need a little more time to speak up. And avoid the temptation to rescue your child from an uncomfortable situation too soon. They need time to build up coping mechanisms.
Sometimes the only thing shy children need is a little time to process things. If you are getting ready for the first day of school, it might help your child to see the classroom and meet the teacher first. Getting early to parties can also help your child get used to the new location and the children as they gradually show up. If you can, find a “job” to help distract them. It might be handing out food at a party or setting up chairs.
Don’t call your child shy or allow others to. Labels can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Labeling children as shy gives them permission to stay in their shell and to continue to act shy. It can also make children feel like there is something wrong with them.
Even if you privately wish your child was more outgoing, learn to embrace your child’s personality. Remember, there are many wonderful things that come from parenting a child who is more independent, focused, and thoughtful.
Let your child know that it is okay to be shy. Respect their temperament and let them be themselves. Your goal is not to change them, but to teach them life skills.
Sometimes the only reason children feel bad about being shy is because everybody expects them to be different. It is important for children to know that they are loved just the way there are. Once children no longer feel pressured to be somebody else, they can become more self-confident about who they are. This confidence will allow them to behave more confidently around others.
To Help a Shy Child, Listen (nytimes.com)