About shyness and shy children
Shy behaviour is common in babies and children.
For example, a baby might cling to their parents, cry in social situations, or physically try to avoid social interaction by hiding their head, moving or turning away, or shutting their eyes.
A preschooler might not want to talk when unfamiliar people speak to them. They might hide behind a parent or avoid joining in games.
A school-age child might avoid answering questions in class, take their time making friends, prefer to sit back and watch others play, or avoid new activities.
There’s nothing wrong with shyness.
Some children are more shy than others. It’s just part of their temperament, which is the way they respond to the world.
Children who seem shy often ‘warm up’ as they get to know a person or situation. This means it’s better to describe these children as ‘slow to warm up’ rather than ‘shy’. Labelling a child as ‘shy’ can make them feel there’s something wrong with them, or there’s nothing they can do about their shyness.
Helping children with shyness
Shyness doesn’t always go away over time, but children can learn to be more confident and comfortable interacting with other people. These tips can help.
Tips for babies and young children
- Give your baby time to feel comfortable. Don’t make them go straight to an unfamiliar 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, like playgroups or parents groups, while encouraging them to explore. As your child gets more comfortable you can gradually move away for short periods. For example, sit on a chair with other adults while your child plays on the floor. You can move back to your child if you need to.
- Let your child know that their feelings are OK and that you’ll help them manage their feelings. For example, ‘I can see you feel a bit scared because you don’t know who’s at the party. Let’s look together before we walk in’.
- Avoid over-comforting your child. Over-comforting sends the message that you think this is a scary situation. And the extra attention might accidentally encourage your child’s shy behaviour.
- Praise ‘brave’ behaviour like responding to others, using eye contact, trying something new or playing away from you. Be specific in your praise. For example, ‘Quinn, 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.
Tips for school-age children
- Encourage playdates, either at your house or a friend’s house. If your child is invited to a friend’s house, they might feel more comfortable if you go with them at first. You could gradually reduce the time you spend with your child at other people’s houses.
- Start with social situations that involve just 1-2 other children and build up to interactions with a larger group of children over time.
- Practise show-and-tell or class presentations with your child at home. This will help your child feel more comfortable when they have to stand up in front of their class.
- Encourage your child to do some extracurricular activities. Try to find ones that encourage social behaviour – for example, Scouts, Girl Guides or a team sport.
- Coach your child before social gatherings so they know what to expect – for example, ‘People are going to want to talk with you today. Remember to look at Uncle Dan when he’s talking. If you don’t, he might think you’re not listening to him’.
- Avoid negative comparisons with more confident siblings or friends.
- Build your child’s self-esteem by encouraging even small steps towards being less shy.
If other people say your child is ‘shy’, it’s OK to correct them gently in front of your child. For example, ‘Lou takes a little while to warm up. Once they’re comfortable they’ll be happy to play’. This sends the message that you understand how your child feels, and they can deal with the situation when they’re ready.
When shyness might be a problem
Your child’s shy behaviour might be a problem if it’s causing them a lot of distress and/or getting in the way of daily life. For example:
- You or your child can’t go places because of their shyness.
- Your child shows signs of anxiety in social situations like parties or school.
- Your child says they feel lonely but doesn’t know how to join in with other children.
- Your child feels they can’t answer or ask questions in class.
Some children who are shy 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 your GP, a paediatrician or a psychologist.
Shyness or something else?
It’s a good idea to talk to your child and family health nurse or GP or your child’s teacher about other reasons for your child’s behaviour.
- A child with a language delay might show signs that they want to speak to people – for example, looking for eye contact or trying to make social connections – but gets frustrated that they can’t be understood.
- A child with hearing loss might not hear or respond to what people are saying or have trouble following instructions.
- An autistic child might have difficulty reading social cues, might not play in the same way as other children and might seem uninterested in social contact.
- A child with selective mutism can’t speak in certain places, with certain people or during certain social activities because of anxiety.
- A child with social anxiety might worry about fears or situations that involve interacting with other people – for example, classroom discussions, playtime with friends and parties.