Shy Kids: Understanding Them and Helping Them Thrive



Posted in: Parenting Concerns, You & Your Family

Topics: Behavioral Issues, Child + Adolescent Development

Some degree of shyness is normal and common in all children. For most, it’s a healthy cautiousness in reaction to a novel social encounter.

Here’s an example:

At a neighborhood barbeque, 4-year-old Tommy wouldn’t show his face, and buried his head in his mom’s skirt behind her. Mom gently encouraged him. “Tommy, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” she said. “You’ve met these friends many times.” Slowly, Tommy peeked his head out offering a glimpse of his bright eyes, but only for a second. Then just as quickly, he tunneled right back where he had been a moment ago, clutching his mom even tighter.  

“He’s just shy, and quite the opposite of Sarah,” Mom continued. Sarah, right on cue, proudly displayed her latest stuffed animal, dancing around her mom and Tommy, singing a silly animal song. “She’s quite the extrovert. And drama queen.”

We all know that siblings are different.

Our kids are born as package deals. They’re wired for a variety of social, emotional and behavioral traits. We call this temperament. Examples include adaptability, quality of mood, and distractibility among others. The traits we’re all born with vary widely in their strength and persistence throughout life.

Shy or socially inhibited kids are on a continuum. It’s normal for a child to feel nervous and hesitant before soccer team tryouts, but it’s a problem when a child refuses to try out for the team because they feel incredibly anxious about failing, being judged, or just plain scared. Shy children have it tough because of their own fears, but most will adjust and adapt to new situations and settings. Over time, they learn to contain their anxiety without undo suffering.

Shyness may well persist throughout life, but the child and later adult usually can reflect on their limitations and finds ways of coping. Interestingly, high functioning adults in all professions—including acting, business, medicine, and other fields in which one might think shyness would be a significant limitation—may be successfully navigated by shy individuals.

I recall a medical student who noted that she was not getting the same kinds of high grades on her rounds because she would remain quiet unless called upon. She noted that she knew all about her patients, their diagnoses and treatments, but the other extroverted medical students spoke up, sometimes loudly and got the attention of the senior faculty. She admitted that this was upsetting to her, but she could not be someone she was not. She did get into Harvard Medical School, knew she was bright and talented, and felt confident she would do fine as a good, sensitive doctor. But she noted that the students who presented in an assertive manner got the most attention and highest grades. She admitted this was not fair, but she had to accept her natural tendency to be quiet and reserved. She told me she has been shy her entire life, but learned to adapt.

When shyness interferes with socialization, with the general expectations of everyday life, like playing with friends, attending school, recess, or parties, and when a child cannot find the means to adjust and adapt, it may indicate more than just shyness. This may be a sign of an anxiety disorder.  This may take the form of separation anxiety, selective mutism, panic disorder, generalized anxiety, or social anxiety disorder.

Tips for Parents

When a parent realizes he or she has a shy child there are several ways to help.

  1. Talk about shyness with your child at their developmental level.

Children need to be seen and known by their parents. It is always helpful to validate your child’s tendency to be fearful in social and novel situations.  Be aware that there are differences when you’re talking to a 5-year-old which is vastly different than a 10 or 15-year-old. Each experience social situation fears differently. Begin by asking what they are feeling in settings such as school, parties, sports, so you understand their point of view. Ask what they are afraid of. Then provide reassurance that other kids are nice, want to be friends, and are accepting. Help them identify their emotional reactions. This can prepare the way for their learning coping mechanisms and tolerating a specific situation rather than avoiding it.

  1. Watch out for labels.

It’s not great to label your child as “shy.” While you want them to appreciate that you understand what they are experiencing, labels may create self-fulfilling prophesies or excuses. Older kids may avoid situations by claiming, “I’m shy. You know I can’t do that!” Instead help them see that, while it may be more of a challenge for them to engage in typical behavior, all kids are timid and wary about new situations.

  1. Model good, confident prosocial behavior.

Remember that parents are the ultimate role models, and kids watch and learn from your behavior. Give them examples of times you have been shy and how you managed your feelings and actions. Let them know when you feel nervous about going to a meeting or having friends over. When they see you with friends, being a gracious host, they will have a good example to imitate.

  1. Suggest small steps in the right direction.

Let your kid know that shyness can be overcome, but only one step at a time.

Let’s look back at Tommy’s situation. Going forward, there are small steps Tommy’s mom could take, like encouraging him to wave to their neighbor from the yard. Mom might also praise Tommy and use some form of reward, like taking him to the park, to indicate that he did something difficult. Bringing cookies that the two baked together to the neighbors could be the next step before going over for a barbeque. The same principle of taking small steps in other situations, reinforced with praise, may be very helpful.

  1. Role play situations.

By talking with and observing your child in different situations, you will know the kinds of settings that are most difficult. Play a game with the child to replicate a social situation. Practice introducing themselves, saying hello, joining in a conversation, entering a party or asking to join in a game. Try and make this a non-pressured game to take the heat out of the situation.

  1. Use your child’s interests to build relationships.

Children, like adults, bond with others around common interests. Find activities your child loves such as playing with blocks or Legos, dancing, or playing sports to help them engage with others. Again, take small steps. It may not be good to enroll them in a large class but instead invite one or two kids over to join in a group activity. The participation with others in enjoyable activities may offset some of the discomfort of socializing.

  1. Parental attitudes matter too.

It’s easy to get frustrated and/or judge your child. Overcoming shyness is a slow, deliberate process. You may worry that your child will get “stuck” in a fearful situation, avoid socialization, or worst fail in life. We know how important social interactions are! Remember that your child will pick up on your worries. This may reinforce your child’s fear of judgement and lack of approval. Your awareness of how you present to your child is critical. Be positive, supportive and above all patient.

  1. You child may be in very good company.

History tells us that some of the most important leaders and celebrities were (and are) shy and introverted. Keep in mind that folks like Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, Emma Watson, Nicole Kidman, Rosa Parks and Albert Einstein are well known high achievers who had problems with shyness.

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Gene Beresin

Gene Beresin, Executive Director

Gene Beresin, MD, MA is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also...

To learn more about Gene, or to contact him directly, please see Our Team.