Helping Your Child Conquer ShynessEn Español (Spanish Version)
You and your child are very excited about attending a birthday party. However, when you arrive there, he will not talk to anyone, looks at the floor and clings to your leg. He acts like he does not want to be there at all. Does this scenario sound familiar?
All children can experience shyness at some point. Shyness, or feelings of discomfort or inhibition in social situations, is a common issue with young children. As a parent, you want to see your child grow socially and developmentally. You may be worried that shyness will cause him to miss out on activities and friendships.While, researchers suspect that there may be a genetic component to shyness, past experiences may also play an important role.
Parents and others who work with children frequently attempt to involve shy children in activities because they know that shy kids are missing out on social and developmental experiences. However, it is also important to help these children overcome shyness, because some of them will not outgrow it. Some become shy teens and adults.
There are no precise guidelines for when you should seek professional help for your shy child. If shyness is particularly troublesome or if the shyness causes significant social impairment, like refusing to speak at school or refusing to join groups, a professional evaluation may be needed.
According to John Walkup, MD, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institute, even if the social impairment is only 10%-20% of a child's functioning, it can still be "very important to a child's growth and development" and should be addressed. Instead of asking whether your child is significantly socially impaired, Dr. Walkup prefers to ask whether your child is "functioning optimally."
There are a number of techniques that you can use to help your child overcome shyness. Here are just a few important ways that you can help:
"Shy people often believe that others are constantly judging them," says Charlotte Smith, MA, director of the Social Fitness Public Education Program for The Shyness Institute in Palo Alto, California. Therefore, parents should try not to be too judgmental about themselves, their children, or others, Smith suggests. Along the same lines, parents should avoid making comments such as, "Don't do that! Everyone is looking at you!" When parents are very judgmental, it reinforces children's beliefs that the world is judging them. This causes them to be shy for fear of negative evaluation.
It is natural for parents to want to protect their children in situations when they feel shy. However, this is not necessarily the best course of action. When parents become too protective with shy children, they decrease their expectations and unknowingly reinforce the shy behavior, says Dr. Walkup. On the other hand, when parents set reasonable goals for children to overcome shyness and help them to achieve these goals, children can make gradual progress toward becoming more comfortable in social situations.
An important first step is for parents to anticipate when a child will exhibit shyness. Then, parents can set a reasonable goal for the child to achieve in connection with the upcoming event. As an example, Dr. Walkup suggests that if you know your child will not order in a restaurant, you might set a reasonable goal such as having her order his own drink. Then, before going to the restaurant, communicate your expectations to your child and do a little role-playing so he can anticipate and rehearse what will happen. (Trying to implement a new goal "on the spot" instead of planning in advance with your child may lead to a power struggle.)
Offering a reward in exchange for meeting the goal is one of the best motivators for helping your child to change his behavior. However, even if he does not quite meet his goal and earn his reward, it is still important to provide feedback after an event, praising any small progress and effort toward overcoming shyness.
Smith adds that helping children to overcome shyness is "a balance between not being overly protective and not being overly pushy." Although it is important for parents to help children to make small social accomplishments, it is also important not to use harsh comments as a form of encouragement. John Malouff, an associate professor of psychology at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, explains that parents may run into more resistance if they push their children too hard. The key is to expect gradual improvement.
Find other ways to describe your child other than labeling him as "shy." Calling your child "shy" can encourage him to think of himself as shy and, consequently, to act shy. Of course, family, friends and others may still innocently make remarks in front of your child about his shyness. To counter these comments, Dr. Malouff recommends explaining the behavior in some other way. For example, you might say, "He is not shy. It just takes him a little while to warm up."
It is helpful to empathize with your child's feelings of shyness. If you were shy as a child and overcame this behavior, share your story with your child. It is also important for parents to reassure children that feeling comfortable in various social situations takes practice, says Smith. Reading children's books about shyness to children is another way parents can talk about shyness.
Enlisting the help of caregivers and teachers will give your efforts the most impact. Share which techniques are working and which are not to help your child overcome shyness, and work together toward gradually decreasing his shyness.
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
Canadian Mental Health Association
Canadian Psychological Association
Dowshen S. Questions & answers. Kids Health website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/parent/question/emotions/shyness_strategies.html. Updated October 2009. Accessed October 4, 2011.
FAQ: How can I help a shy child? Illinois Early Learning Project website. Available at: http://illinoisearlylearning.org/faqs/shy.htm. Updated May 2009. Accessed October 4, 2011.
Idleman J. Helping children with shyness. Hand In Hand website. Available at: http://www.handinhandparenting.org/news/48/64/Helping-Children-with-Shyness. Accessed October 4, 2011.
Last Reviewed October 2011