By Dr Benjamin Spock updated by Dr Robert Needlman
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Toddler up close looking upset

Some children are outgoing. Others feel uncomfortable joining a group or being the focus of attention from people outside the family. The tendency to be shy is mostly a matter of inborn temperament, not something that parenting causes or can change. But you can help your child to feel comfortable being who she is.

Shyness is often looked down on, so children who are labelled shy might feel ashamed of themselves. This is particularly if they sense that their parents want them to act in a way that is very different from what feels comfortable.

It’s important to consider how you talk about your child when she displays ‘shy’ behaviours. If you say, ‘Oh, Ruby’s just shy’, this gives her a label. It doesn’t give her the option of being different. Try saying instead, ‘Ruby will come and talk or play when she’s comfortable’. This sends the message that your child has some control, and give her an idea about how to cope.

What helps children the most is to know that their parents accept them as they are and have confidence that they will be fine. You can also help by giving your child extra time and support. But it does not help to allow your child to avoid uncomfortable situations altogether.

How to tell if shyness is a problem

There is a wide range of shyness that is normal. Not every child needs to be gregarious. A slow-to-warm-up child is usually able to get over an initial tendency to hang back. Once that’s done, the child joins in joyfully. An overly shy child, on the other hand, avoids many social situations completely and misses out.

Normal shyness does not prevent a child from going to school, going to birthday parties, or playing in the park. But a thoughtful adult (often a parent or teacher) might need to take some time to help the child feel comfortable in the beginning.

Shyness becomes a problem when it blocks a child’s ability to move ahead developmentally – to make relationships with people outside the immediate family, including peers, teachers and other adults.

Shy behaviours

Here are some shy behaviours that might concern you.

  • Your child clings to your legs when there are unknown adults around. After a few minutes of not being pressured, a normally shy child is able to start moving away or playing. I like the term ‘slow to warm up’ to describe this sort of behaviour.
  • At the park, your child stands off on the side as other children play with each other. Afterward, she might say that she had fun, even though all she did was watch. Parents need to feel comfortable letting their children take their time to warm up.
  • Your child doesn’t want to be dropped off at school or at the sitter’s house. You might need to stay for several minutes while he becomes comfortable and involved in play. Then, it’s best to simply say goodbye without much fuss. This communicates confidence in your child’s ability to handle the situation. It shouldn’t take longer than a week for a child to become comfortable, although you might have to repeat the process for each new situation. Over time, you can remind your child, ‘I know you always feel uneasy at first, but then you’re always OK’.
  • Your child refuses to speak outside the home. This problem tends to get worse over time. It is probably important to work with a professional in situations such as this.
  • Your child refuses to ‘perform’ for strangers, as in, ‘Say your alphabet for the nice doctor, Sam’. This behaviour is very common in preschool children. Some completely healthy children might never feel comfortable ‘on stage’. The best approach is to lower the pressure as much as possible.
  • Your child chooses to play by himself much of the time. This is normal for many children, as long as they have at least one or two friends (for a child aged four or older).
  • Sometimes shyness goes along with other fears – fears of animals, for example, or the dark. Pay attention to your own feelings.

Sometimes what concerns parents the most about their children are issues that were in fact hard for the parents when they were growing up. If you remember being painfully shy as a child, you might find your child’s shyness hard to bear. On the other hand, if you have always been very outgoing, you might find your child’s shy behaviour especially puzzling.

By paying attention to your own feelings, you will be able to focus more clearly on how your child’s shyness is affecting her.

The biology of shyness

A large part of a child’s personality is inborn. More and more, scientists are discovering how differences in the brain result in differences in how children respond to the world. Shyness is one of those personality traits that has been studied the most.

The tendency to be shy arises, in part, from the part of the brain that controls how we respond to things that are new or unfamiliar.

Most sensitive children grow up healthy and well-adjusted . Some even learn to be outgoing, although I suspect that some element of their earlier sensitive nature remains with them. The key to these good outcomes is parents who understand and accept their child’s individual differences, and who support the child in coping with new people and situations at the child’s own pace.

Babies seem to be programmed to pay special attention to unfamiliar things. Normally, when an infant notices something new, she stares at it, her heart beats faster, and her body becomes still. In a few moments, however, the newness wears off and the heart rate drops back down.

In a small number of children – about one in seven – the heart rate stays high for a long time, and the babies show other signs of being stressed. They might sweat, fuss or look uncomfortable. This high degree of sensitivity to newness appears to be inborn, not learned. And it can be lifelong.

Scientists who study these sensitive babies find that as preschoolers and later in primary school, they are more likely to be shy. Other research suggests that these children might be more sensitive in other ways as well.

For example, when they are exposed to stressful events such as earthquakes, they might show signs of being more upset, stay upset for longer, and even have an increased likelihood of developing physical illness in response to stress.

We don’t know yet exactly what it is that makes some children more sensitive in this way. At some point, scientists might figure out which genes are responsible.

It is important to understand that the tendency to shyness is not an illness.