How can you help your shy child feel good about who they are instead of feeling lesser than their uninhibited peers? As a caregiver of a shy child, you may have observed that our culture praises and rewards outgoing social behavior. Adults, teachers, and even other children are more apt to commend and be drawn to “life of the party” kids for assertiveness and leadership as if outgoingness is the ideal.
Quieter kids are the ones who are encouraged to change to fit in and to be "successful,” instead of being accepted just the way they are and appreciated for the traits that make them unique. There are simple strategies that you can use to nurture the social-emotional development of shy kids.
Tips to help shy kids thrive
Shift the negative perception that shyness is a weakness. Shyness is feeling awkward or nervous in social situations from a fear of being judged by others. Starting a new school, for example, is often scary for kids. It is not problematic if shy children take a few weeks or months to feel comfortable and safe in a new environment.
Psychologists differentiate shyness from social anxiety and introversion. Social anxiety, opens a new window is a disorder where the fear of being observed and judged by others is so intense and frequent that it interferes with daily life. Introversion, opens a new window is a personality type in which a person prefers being alone or in smaller groups and is not related to shyness or social anxiety. Shyness and introversion are on a spectrum; a child can be an extrovert and be shy.
“It is completely developmentally appropriate for young children to feel shy in new settings.”
~Koraly Pérez-Edgar, Child Study Center at Penn State University
Avoid labeling your child (or anyone else) and ask others to do the same. Pigeonholing kids in their early years is limiting and may not be accurate after social-emotional skills have time to develop. Resist the temptation to apologize or explain to others that “my child is shy,” which infers that there is something wrong with them. If you feel an explanation is necessary, a comment such as “my child is slow to warm up to someone or someplace new” might be a better alternative.
Studies have revealed that shyness can be favorable: shy people are often astute observers and tend to be empathetic, compassionate, and trustworthy. There is no better or worse way of being social, just a different way, opens a new window.
Provide controlled environments to practice socializing. Shyness is not a fixed characteristic; children generally become less shy as they get older.
Rehearsing expectations and offering suggestions for potentially tense situations may be beneficial. A child can cope better when they know what to expect and how to act beforehand. Arrive early to allow your child to acclimate to the environment (especially in large gatherings) instead of making a grand entrance after others are already socializing.
To help children feel more comfortable with introductions, practice these three steps at home:
- Look the person you are greeting in the eye (or in the middle of the forehead)
- Say hello
Offer support. “I’m going to be there to help you because I know you feel nervous.” While being overprotective does not benefit a shy child, it is also not helpful to show anger or disappointment by forcing the child into stressful settings. Insensitive reactions such as rolling your eyes and pushing a terrified child into situations that aren’t a good match for their personality may heighten anxiety in the future.
Find a balance that begins with acknowledging their feelings and showing your support. Be patient if your toddler sits in your lap for the entire playdate with an unfamiliar child or at library storytime. They may begin to participate after attending and observing a few times.
Encourage stretching outside their comfort zone, starting with small steps. If a toddler has a complete meltdown in a high stimulation setting, it is okay to pick them up and leave. Calming down is usually not possible without changing the situation.
Follow the child’s lead and allow them to go at their own pace, but at the same time, making sure that they actually keep going.
~ Dr. Pérez-Edgar
Cultivate social-emotional development. Social-Emotional Learning, opens a new window (SEL) can give children language to talk about emotions. Ask open-ended questions to urge your child to tell you how they’re feeling. Keep it low-key, such as “What did you think about your new class today?”
“It’s about letting your child tell you where their limits are, and respecting that.”
~ Dr. Pérez-Edgar
Seek professional guidance if needed. It is worth talking with a pediatrician or child psychologist if shyness limits your child from participating in everyday school or social activities. Being able to differentiate between avoidance from shyness and individual preferences is meaningful. Socially anxious children may also manifest physical symptoms such as digestive issues or resist going to school.
“The child who you should worry about is the child who never warms up, who never happily enters these situations, who just can’t find their niche.”
~ Dr. Pérez-Edgar
Most of all, it may be necessary to change your view of shyness from perceiving hesitant social traits as unfavorable, to accept that shyness may be a natural period of growth in their development. It is who they are at this stage, not a problem that requires fixing. Celebrate their strengths to gain confidence over time!
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Moyer, Melinda Wenner. (2020, April 15). How to support your shy kid, opens a new window. The New York Times [digital news]
Pearson, Catherine. (2021, June 15). 5 Ways to support your shy kid – without forcing them to change, opens a new window. HuffPost Parenting. The Huffington Post [digital news]
Photo by Sai De Silva on Unsplash