When my first child was born, he was definitely not a shy child. He was the most outgoing person I had ever met. This is not a lie; he spoke in complete sentences before he was a year old and, at 14 months, could have a conversation with you. And he would. He would talk to anyone who would listen. With beautiful green eyes and sandy hair, he captivated adults and loved being the center of attention. As a first-time mom, that’s how I thought all kids acted when they were little. Nope, that’s not how it works at all. Every child is different. So very different.
I went on to have two more boys in five short years. They all had unique personalities, but none of them were what I consider to be a shy child. Each boy loved to talk to other kids and adults, and transitions to unfamiliar situations were pretty easy for them. When I gave birth to my fourth child, I expected it to be the same. But I was totally wrong. My little girl was my first introduction to an introverted and shy child, and it took some getting used to.
So, What Does It Mean to Be Shy?
Shyness will mean something different to everyone, and experiences vary, but some common qualities exist. The American Psychological Association says shyness means a person feels awkward, worried, or tense when interacting in social situations, particularly if they are in new situations or around strangers. Shyness can cause physical reactions like sweating, blushing, or a feeling of heart pounding. It can even make a person sick to their stomach or have negative thoughts or doubts about themselves.1,2
Many people are shy in various situations, but it can be debilitating for some people. I realized that being a shy child was painful for my daughter when she was very young. Some other ways shyness can appear are:2,3
- Wanting to avoid places because they feel shy
- Showing anxiety about social situations such as parks, school, child care, etc
- Expressing they feel lonely but don’t know how to approach other kids to join in play
- Avoiding speaking up in social settings
- Some shy children even go on to develop anxiety. This is when shy behavior might be significant, causing them distress, hard to change, and is really impacting their quality of life
I Noticed She Was a Shy Child Early On
When my daughter was a baby, she was what you might call “clingy.” She was a mama’s girl; we were BFFs from day one. Of course, she was friendly with her dad, grandparents, and family members she often saw, but never with the sweet lady at the grocery store. My shy child would not wave or smile at a stranger; she would look down or close her eyes to make them disappear. I thought it would disappear as she got older, but that didn’t happen.
Then, I Enrolled Her in Dance Class
I was a stay-at-home mom when she was younger, so I enrolled her in a Monday morning dance class at our local YMCA. She was two years old, and I thought this would be an excellent opportunity for my shy child to be around other kids her age. In the first class, only two girls were there, she and her cousin. This isn’t a cousin she only sees a few times a year. These two have been best friends since the day she was born. I thought seeing her would make my shy child comfortable, but that wasn’t the case.
She sat in the dance class in her new leotard and tap shoes with her tiny hands covering her eyes. It was like she was playing peek-a-boo, except she never put her hands down. I laughed it off, thinking it was only because she was new, but it was the same the following week. And soon, I realized my shy child was hurting. She was frightened and wanted me, and I was putting her into a situation that made her anxious. That needed to change.
You Can’t Make a Shy Child Outgoing
It’s important to reframe things for yourself, your child, and other people. There is nothing wrong with being shy, it’s just part of your child’s temperament and how they view the world. With my daughter, I couldn’t look at her and say, “Okay, you can’t be a shy child anymore; time to talk to strangers.” That wasn’t going to work. I had to put myself into those little tap shoes. She was a tiny person with limited language, or at least language that her family only understood. When I put her into that class, even though her cousin was there, it was still a new place with a new teacher, and I was out of the room. You can’t throw a shy child into a situation like that without some introduction. She needed to know she was safe and loved and that talking to her teacher and being friends with the other girls in the class was okay.3
Helping My Shy Child Took a Very Long Time
When we realized we were dealing with a shy child as a toddler, we worked hard to make her comfortable and help her learn to assert herself as she got older. It started with simple things like saying hi to the checker at Target and making small talk. When we would take her somewhere new, like a restaurant, we would encourage her to order food. This was not easy for her at first, but we used a lot of positive reinforcement and praise, and soon she became more comfortable speaking up.
School was a challenge at first. We enrolled her in a toddler class a couple of days a week to give her time away from me. It broke my heart to leave her because she often cried as a shy child, but I knew I had to. I would hug and kiss her and tell her I loved her and would come back. Her teachers would take her, and I would go, and in a few minutes, it was fine. I genuinely think that was harder for me than her, but as time went by, it became easier.
Tips on Embracing and Helping Your Shy Child
Experts say parents can work with their shy children to help them overcome their anxiety. Psychology Today offers excellent tips for parents who want to help their kids.4,5,6
Don’t Label Them as ‘Shy’
This can result in your child losing even more confidence in themselves when they are labeled “shy.” You can gently correct anyone else who calls your child shy by saying something like, “It’s OK, Joey just takes a little while to warm up in new situations or with new people.” This helps your child feel acknowledged and normal and know that it’s OK that they respond to situations this way.
Validate Their Feelings
While we don’t want to “over” comfort a child who feels shy, it’s important to acknowledge their feelings about a situation in a nonjudgemental way. This is so that they feel safe, but also gives a name to their feelings which in turn can help them manage (if they know what they are feeling, it’s easier to pick out an appropriate coping strategy).
Work With and Use Their Interests
First, find what your child is interested in. If they love to play at the park, try to go when other kids are around. If they are having fun doing something they enjoy, your shy child may be more apt to talk to other kids and become more comfortable in a social situation.
Practice Meeting Someone New
Next, it’s a good idea to practice scripts. Helping a shy child to know what to say in a social situation can make it easier for them to talk to someone new. This can be as simple as teaching your shy child to greet someone with a smile and eye contact. It might also help to ask “what” and “how” questions to see how they might act in a social situation.
Start With One-on-One Situations
Help your shy child to interact one on one. It is often easier for a shy child to come out of their shell in a smaller setting than in a big crowd. Small playdates can encourage stronger friendships. When a shy child can concentrate on one person, they can practice social skills and build confidence.
Show Them How to Interact
If someone is friendly to you, be friendly back. If your shy child sees you interacting with others and being responsible to someone who is friendly and kind is okay, they will be more likely to respond themselves. This can be great with compliments and learning to say thank you.
Help Them See Another Perspective
Try to help them think of things from someone else’s perspective. This can be tough, but if your shy child can put themselves in someone else’s shoes, it might help them realize people aren’t always so scary and that others are just like them.
Above all, you must be patient. Your shy child needs your patience more than anything. This won’t change overnight, but you can help your shy child become less shy with hard work.
When It’s More Than Shyness
Mostly being shy is just simply that. … shyness. But it’s important to be on the lookout for situations where shyness might indicate something else.7
- Hearing issues. Sometimes children don’t (or can’t) engage if they can’t hear well. This may be because they miss conversation cues entirely or feel embarrassed that they haven’t heard the other person and don’t feel comfortable, or don’t know how to ask them to repeat themselves.
- Language delays. Similar to hearing loss, your child might not understand other people’s communication or the opposite, they might not be able to communicate their needs or thoughts, etc. This may lead to frustration, shame, and avoidance of communication.
- Autism. Autism can lead a child to experience different perceptions of social situations and they may have difficulty reading and responding to social cues.
- Social anxiety. This is shyness in the extreme (avoidance of social situations, fears that they are being judged negatively, influences on daily living and functioning, etc), but it is a diagnosis rather than a natural way that your child’s temperament is expressed.
In all of these circumstances, it’s best not to guess or assume but to seek support from your medical provider or other trusted health professional if you are concerned.
But Remember, It is Okay to Be a Shy Child
Honestly, I think being a shy child can be a good thing. While I love my oldest son’s precociousness, he was the little guy who would walk off with anyone and not think twice. In retrospect, that was a little scary. The more shy you are, the less likely you’ll wander too far. I never made my daughter feel bad about being shy. And while she is seven now and things have improved, it can take some time to get comfortable in new situations. It isn’t as bad as when she was younger, but I can see in her eyes when she struggles, and I still employ the same tactics.
I tell her that everything is okay and I love her. That is the most important thing you can do with a shy child. They need always to know that someone is in their corner. If she knows she is safe, she will likely venture out.
Yes, she is my shy child, but I don’t want to change her. She has grown a lot in the past few years but is still hesitant occasionally, which is okay. But one thing about those shy ones, they may be quiet, but they are taking it all in and learning about the world.