Tips on Helping Your Shy Child
If you are the parent of a shy child, you may have experienced intense worry about your child’s lack of talking, few friendships outside of school, and/or limited participation in groups. Approximately 20% of all children have a shy temperamental style, and parents’ responses can either help or hinder their child’s success as an adult. Shyness is hardwired into the brain and leads to children feeling uncomfortable in new situations, to remain quiet amongst strangers, and to withdraw in circumstances they perceive as stressful.
There are advantages and disadvantages to shyness. Shy children tend to excel in school, cause little trouble, and are well-liked by teachers and adults. On the other hand, shy children tend to avoid speaking to peers, participating in games/activities (even on recess), or engaging with peers in other ways that builds social skills and friendships that are needed for relationships as they grow older. Shy children are also at higher risk for anxiety disorders.
Shyness is just fine as long your child has a close friend or two, performs well in school, and has interests outside of school. However, when shyness prevents your child from making friends, participating in school activities, or interferes in any other aspect of daily life, then it may be helpful to talk with your child’s pediatrician or have a consult with a child psychologist.
Here are 6 parenting suggestions if you are raising a shy child:
- Support your child in figuring out how to do things independently rather than trying to “fix it” for her. It is often tempting for parents to want to DO what it is needed to make things easier for their child. For a shy child, this may include parents ordering at a restaurant, speaking on the child’s behalf when a neighbor asks them a question, or going to their teacher after hearing about something from a school day. While it is always a good idea to be supportive of your child, for shy children, it is essential that they practice speaking on their own behalf.
- Accomplish one goal at a time. Shy children can feel uncomfortable about many different social demands within the academic environment, which parents can find increasingly frustrating as children progress in school. Rather than noticing all of the ways your child is unsuccessful socially, begin by targeting just one goal that he is willing to work on. For example, if your child is uncomfortable asking questions in class, you can discuss options for how he will handle these moments – possibilities may include that he will get assistance from a classmate, ask the teacher privately after class, or have parents develop an agreement with the teacher that allows the child to raise his hand with a question while assuring he will not be called on unexpectedly. Then, once this goal is going well, another goal can be added and slowly momentum gets established. As your child experiences success with each step, he gains confidence and feels more comfortable advocating for himself in times of need.
- Create experiences where your child has to function independently. Shy children often feel most comfortable being close to their parents or around a few select individuals. To help broaden their “comfort-zone,” it is useful to give them strategies to deal with concerns and then provide opportunities being more independent. During the preschool years, this is well-accomplished with preschool programming. During the school years, this can be practiced by overnight camps that last several days or a week, where children/teens get to make new friends and have new experiences. These experiences can be lengthened over time after successful experiences, and children can be included in choosing camps that meet their interests.
- Reassure your child of her capabilities. Send the message to your child that you trust that she is capable of DOING whatever she feels she cannot. Shy children often experience worries/fears that make new experiences even more challenging. Parents want to send a gentle message of confidence and trust about what they know their child can do. Parents often inadvertently undermine their own efforts to build confidence. For example, when parents fail to leave a child with a babysitter because she is crying, or don’t make her stay at karate class because she doesn’t know anybody, this sends a negative message to the child. It communicates either “You are correct, this is not a safe place” or “You can’t handle this situation, and you should leave.”
- Let your child move at his own pace. Parents sometimes have an expected timeline about when/how things should occur, often based on chronological age or grade. But each child is unique and influenced by many variables. If you are raising a shy child, he may be likely to not match the pace you set in some areas. Rather than rushing him along (which usually creates more tension), figure out how to best support him in building skills so that he can do better at asserting himself and feeling comfortable when you are not there at his side.
- Accept your child. Your child will not transform into a non-shy child and doesn’t need to in order for them to be successful or happy. It is meaningful to show appreciation and acceptance of your child’s personality and inherent strengths. Be cautious in labeling your child “a shy child” and/or referring to her in this way to others (especially when she can hear) – as this is perceived as negative and encourages your child to retreat rather than engage. Avoid teasing or ridiculing your child for struggling in social situations. Focus instead on her ability to tolerate the uncomfortable moments and her efforts to work toward her goals.
Written by Victoria L. Norton, Psy.D. at Linden BP. If you are interested in receiving Linden Blog updates with original articles about parenting, families, mental health, and wellness, subscribe using the field below.