By Raising Children Network
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Mum holding and comforting shy toddler

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In some cultures ‘shy’ behaviour – for example, waiting to be spoken to or avoiding looking at the other person when talking – is the norm. For children who have migrated to Australia, this can be a big cultural difference.
Some children are slow to warm up or uncomfortable in social situations. We often say they’re naturally shy. If your child experiences shyness, you can help by supporting her in social situations, encouraging brave social behaviour and showing her how to act in social situations.

Shyness: the basics

All children are born with individual temperaments. Temperament is the way a child interacts with the world.

‘Shyness’ is one type of temperament. Children with shy temperaments tend to be uncomfortable with social interactions. They sometimes keep away from social situations.

Most children are clingy sometimes, but clinginess comes and goes. Shyness doesn’t go away over time, but shy children can learn to be more confident and comfortable interacting with other people.

There’s nothing wrong with shyness.

A shy child often ‘warms up’ as he gets to know a person or situation. This means it’s more helpful to describe a child as ‘slow to warm up’ rather than ‘shy’. Labelling a child as ‘shy’ can make him feel there’s something wrong with him, or there’s nothing he can do about his shyness.

Instead you can say, ‘Lila takes a little while to warm up. Once she’s comfortable she’ll be happy to play’. This sends the message to your child and others that you understand how she feels, and she can deal with the situation when she’s ready.

Not all babies and young children with ‘slow to warm up’ temperaments end up being shy adults.

Supporting your child with shyness

It’s normal to want your child to be confident and comfortable in social situations, but this doesn’t come naturally to all children. This means that children who are slow to warm up need to practise social skills in small, manageable steps.

You can help your child practise and learn by giving him the chance to be around others, encouraging and praising ‘brave’ social behaviour, showing him how to act in social situations, and supporting but not over-comforting him in social situations.

Tips for young children
Here are tips to help babies, toddlers and preschoolers with shyness in social situations:

  • Give your baby time to feel comfortable. Don’t make your child go straight into the arms of a less familiar adult. Instead, encourage the adult to play with a toy near your child and use a calm voice.
  • Stay with your child in social situations, such as playgroup or parents group, while encouraging her to explore. As your child gets more comfortable you can gradually move yourself away for short periods. Just come back before your child gets upset so her experiences of venturing out are positive.
  • Avoid over-comforting your child. Over-comforting sends the message that you think this is a scary situation. This might accidentally reward your child’s shy behaviour.
  • Praise ‘brave’ behaviour like responding to others, using eye contact, or playing away from you. Be specific about what your child has done – for example, ‘Noah, I liked the way you said hello to the boy in the park. Did you notice how he smiled when you did that?’
  • Try to model confident social behaviour so your child can watch and learn from you. For example, when someone says hello to you, always say hello back.
  • Let your child know you’re confident about her ability to handle social situations even if you’re feeling a bit worried she’ll get upset.
  • If other people say your child is ‘shy’, gently correct them in front of your child. For example, ‘He’s not shy – he just takes a little while to get comfortable and then he’ll join in’.

Tips for school-age children
Here are tips to help school-age children with shyness in social situations:

  • Encourage playdates, either at your house or a friend’s house. If your child is invited to a friend’s house, she might feel more comfortable if you go with her at first. You could gradually reduce the time you spend with her at other people’s houses.
  • Practise show-and-tell or class presentations with your child at home. This will help your child feel more comfortable when he has to stand up in front of his class.
  • Encourage your child to do some extracurricular activities. Try to find ones that encourage social behaviour – for example, Scouts, Girl Guides or sport.
  • Coach your child through social interactions. In familiar situations, remind your child to do things like make eye contact, face people with her whole body, and answer questions in a voice that people can hear. For example, you could say, ‘Remember to look at Uncle Dan when he’s talking to you’.
  • Avoid negative comparisons with more confident siblings or friends. Instead help to build your child’s self-esteem by focusing on even small steps towards being less shy.
Shy children often don’t want to be noticed. It might help your child to know that people are more likely to notice him if he says nothing, than if he responds when people talk to him.

How to tell if shyness is a problem

Normal shy behaviour
There’s a range of normal shy behaviour.

For example, it’s normal for a baby to cling to her parents, cry in a social situation, and physically try to avoid social interaction by hiding her head, moving or turning away, or shutting her eyes.

It’s also normal for a preschooler not to talk when unfamiliar people speak to him. He might hide behind a parent, or avoid joining in games.

And it’s normal for a school-age child to sometimes avoid answering questions in class, have trouble making friends, prefer to sit back and watch others play, or avoid new activities.

When shyness might be a problem
You can tell if your child’s shy behaviour is a problem by asking yourself whether it’s causing her (or you) a  lot of distress.

For example, your child might not be able to say ‘hello’ when someone greets her or look at someone when they’re talking. Perhaps you or your child can’t go places because of her shyness.

Children who show shyness might also show signs of anxiety in social situations, such as parties, playdates, school and sporting activities. They might also talk about feeling lonely, and show signs that they want more friends but don’t know how to get past their shyness.

If your child’s shy behaviour is interfering with his performance at school, or impacting on his friendships, this is a sign that it’s becoming a problem.

Some shy children go on to develop anxiety. So if your child’s shy behaviour is significant and hard to change, it could help to talk to a professional like a psychologist

Shyness or something else?

Sometimes children with language delays, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or hearing problems can behave in ways that look like shyness – for example, they might not make eye contact or take part in a basic conversation.

It’s a good idea to have a chat to your child’s child and family health nurse (for young babies and toddlers) or your child’s teacher (for preschool and school-age children) to rule out other reasons for your child’s behaviour.

For example:

  • A child with a language delay might show signs that she wants to speak to people – for example, looking for eye contact or trying to make social connections – but gets frustrated that she can’t be understood.
  • A child with a hearing impairment might show few signs of hearing adults (including parents) speaking to him. He might have trouble following instructions or might miss a range of noises.
  • A child with ASD might have difficulty reading social cues, might not play in the same way as other children and might seem uninterested in social contact.

Your feelings about your child’s shyness

Many parents feel disappointed or even frustrated that their child is slower to warm up. Most parents want their child to feel at ease with others, and to have confidence in social situations.

It’s not your fault or your child’s fault that she finds social situations scary. It might just be part of her genetic make-up. It can help to focus on the positive steps you and your child are taking to overcome shyness.

If you’re shy yourself and aren’t sure how to help your child because of your own shyness, it might be a good idea to speak to a professional like a psychologist.

  • Last updated or reviewed 18-09-2015
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with Emma Little, developmental and educational psychologist.