Shyness refers to the tendency to feel anxious or awkward in social situations, especially with new and unfamiliar people. Is your child usually quiet and withdrawn when meeting new people? Do you worry that she is too shy to do well at school or make friends? Are you concerned that she isn’t outgoing or doesn’t seem to have a sense of adventure? If so, you may have a child with a shy temperament. Often, one or both parents of a shy child will also identify themselves as shy or awkward.
Everyone can experience a little shyness once in a while. We can all be a bit overwhelmed by unfamiliar surroundings or different faces. In a temperamentally shy child, common behaviors such as stranger anxiety (which typically peaks at age 9 months) and separation anxiety (which peaks at age 18 months) do not improve as the child grows older.
Your child may be slower to approach others or to warm up to them. Some children are only shy in certain situations, such as in new settings or with people that they don’t know well. They may be much more comfortable in small groups or with close family members, such as siblings or cousins.
In early childhood, more typically shy children may be reserved and quiet but interested in the activities around them. Their play skills are appropriate, but they tend to play alone. As children grow older, they should be taught ways to manage feelings of awkwardness or anxiety so that they can engage in rich social experiences.
Withdrawn children may purposefully avoid social situations, and this can worsen as they grow older. Some shy kids may be bullied or be seen as unpopular because they are “different.” Other kids may simply be forgotten by peers because they have not found a few friends or comfortable acquaintances. Research has shown that social withdrawal, depression or anxiety can develop as super-shy children move toward adolescence and adulthood.
Shyness can turn into a strength once a child learns to gently open up, reduce social anxiety and develop healthy relationships with others. Quiet or introverted people can develop strong intuitive skills, focus their creative energy and become nurturing leaders. With the right guidance and support, shy children can grow into strong, self-assured adults. Shyness actually can become your child’s superpower.
As a parent, it’s important to understand and respect your child’s shy temperament. Greet her with warmth, acceptance and patience, but don’t overprotect or overindulge her in social situations. Try to acknowledge and reward her effective coping skills. Don’t constantly comfort your child every time she is upset or anxious. Think about how you explain her quiet or anxious nature to others. By labeling your child as shy, you might enable her to show less effort to connect with others because she has an excuse.
Help your child to prepare in advance for new experiences. For example, arrange a visit to a new school and meet her teacher before the beginning of the school year. Talk to your child’s teachers about her temperament and what works (and doesn’t) to her get used to new situations. Enlist the teachers’ help to increase your child’s social opportunities in the school setting. Being allowed to first observe before entering an activity may reduce her initial discomfort. Ask if your school offers lunch groups or other activities for kids who are struggling with their social skills.
Positive social relationships will help improve your child’s confidence. As a parent, you can help her develop social skills and learn to build friendships. A child who has a secure bond with her parent can learn to be more resilient in social situations. Be a role model by exemplifying socially confident behaviors. While you and your child are together in public, show her how you make eye contact and say hello to others. When you meet others, confidently introduce yourself and your child. Teach her how to ask for help and to give a compliment. Arrange play dates and help her think up fun things to do with others. Talk about your friends, and emphasize the great rewards of building friendships.
Help your child develop talents and hobbies that make her feel special. Children may thrive socially once they become involved in scouting, sports or dance activities. Some kids may wish to initially attend individual lessons instead of group activities, but can then be gently encouraged to share their interests with other same-aged children or to perform within a group.
Some children need professional help, including behavioral counseling, to develop social skills and lessen their fear around other children or adults. The right support can help your child develop strong coping skills, improve self-esteem and reduce anxiety. Some kids benefit from a social skills class to help develop these skills. If needed, talk with your child’s healthcare provider about behavioral health resources in your area. It is always OK to ask for professional help when you’re not sure how to best support your child. No matter your child’s temperament, your superpower as a parent is your ability to help her meet her full potential.
Beth Heuer, DNP, CPNP-PC, PMHS, is a nurse practitioner at the Child Development Unity at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.