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Helping Your Child Understand and Overcome Shyness

Little boy fishing alone, sitting on dock, rubber boots dangling over water

Maisy, 3, has been going to playdates at her friend Hayley's house since she was an infant. You'd think she'd feel right at home. But Maisy still spends at least the first half hour of every visit snuggled into her mother's lap, cautiously observing. "I kept thinking, if I took her places often enough, she'd get used to it," says her mother, Diane Hoffman, of New York City. "It never happened."

There's nothing wrong with being a little reserved. But if feeling shy keeps a child from enjoying new experiences and doing the things she truly wants to do, it can be a problem. "Being shy feels uncomfortable, and it causes us to miss out on opportunities," says Renee Gilbert, PhD, a Seattle-area clinical psychologist and creator of the Web site shakeyourshyness.com. Added up, these missed opportunities can become huge, she says.

Fortunately, a concerned parent can help a shy child learn to feel more comfortable. While the approach may vary, the shy child -- like every child -- needs space to learn what works best for him.

Why So Shy?

Is being "shy" something you're born with or a learned reaction? Apparently, the answer is both. Jerome Kagan, PhD, of Harvard University, found that a child who hesitated to approach an unfamiliar object or speak to a stranger at 21 months was likely to still be timid at 12 years old. But he also found that only a small percentage of the children were consistently shy or outgoing. The rest became more or less inhibited depending on the situation. "There's some evidence that about 15 percent of people are born with an inhibited personality, but nearly 50 percent of Americans admit to being shy in one or more areas," says Gilbert. "There's clearly a learned component."

Since many children will feel or act shy at some point during their childhood, how can you tell if your baby or young child is temperamentally inclined toward shyness? Parents of shy children say that they just knew -- and early on. "Maisy never engaged people on the street, and she'd turn her head away or bury her face into me so that people could not see her if they approached us," Hoffman says.

Stranger anxiety and separation anxiety can create shy behavior, but a truly shy baby or toddler won't be wary only of new people or upset when you leave. She'll also be less willing to reach for a new toy and more reluctant to be put down in a strange place, and she'll continue to be cautious as she gets older. "There are three things we look for with shyness," says Barbara Markway, PhD, author of Nurturing the Shy Child (St. Martin's). "There's behavior -- avoiding eye contact, turning the head away, or hiding behind the mother. There are physical manifestations of anxiety -- heart racing, blushing, or crying or thrashing about for a baby. And finally, there are thoughts and feelings. Older kids say things like, 'Everyone's staring at me' or 'I don't know what to say.' It doesn't go away either. It's an enduring, recurring thing."

Parenting the Shy Child

Some parents feel that it's important to accept a shy child the way she is. Others focus more on teaching a child to interact more comfortably in social situations. Ultimately, it's best to combine support with encouragement. "The goal is not to eliminate shyness but to help the child work within her own personality to do the things she wants to do," Markway says. Some techniques to help your child:

  • Show him the way. Other parents may be sitting on the benches while you join in at the sandbox, but if your child needs you there so he'll feel safe, it's worth a little sand in your shoes.
  • Set the stage. Encourage family and friends to work with your child. Tell them that she's shy or slow to warm up. Ask them to give her time to observe and adjust to a new situation.
  • Find a balance. "Take your child's social temperature," says Gilbert. "You don't want to remove a child from every uncomfortable situation. Learning to deal with anxiety is part of life." However, if it's two hours into a party and she hasn't left your side, it's time to go home. Once there, help by giving her words to use when joining another child at play. She may never be at the center of Pin the Tail on the Donkey, but she can learn to take a turn -- if she wants to.
  • Help your child discover his strengths. "Elliot is a great observer of people," says Laura Gasiorek, of Greensboro, North Carolina, regarding her shy son, 3. "He understands their personalities and emotions because he's not talking; he's looking and thinking. He actually relates really well to his peers." As you help your child to become more socially adept, remind him that you're teaching these skills so that he'll feel more comfortable and be able to enjoy himself, not because you wish he were different.

"Not every child has to be a social butterfly," says Markway, and Hoffman agrees. "I was shy, and Maisy is shy, and it's not a bad thing," she says. "I just wish I'd accepted her the way she is sooner and not worried about what everyone else thinks."

In this era of paranoid parenting, we're hyperalert to everything that could possibly herald a developmental disorder. Usually, a shy child is just a shy child, but sometimes what initially appears as shy behavior may warrant a closer look from a pediatrician or psychologist to rule out a more serious problem. Things to watch for include:

  • Social Phobia or Social Anxiety Disorder

    Watch for: Excessively shy behavior that lasts for more than six months and severely limits a child's ability to engage in day-to-day activity (refusal to go to school, inability to participate in class).
  • Selective Mutism

    Watch for: A child who understands language and speaks normally at home or to a few select individuals, but refuses (or is unable) to speak in many social situations.
  • Asperger's Syndrome

    Watch for: Inability to read social cues, ready attachment to adults but little to peers, an abnormally intense preoccupation with a particular interest, inflexible adherence to rituals, or unusual and repetitive movements.
  • Autism

    Watch for: Reluctance or refusal to meet anyone's gaze (including primary caregivers), delayed language, or an apparent inability (as opposed to reluctance) to use language to communicate with others.

KJ Dell'Antonia, coauthor of Reading with Babies, Toddlers, and Twos (Sourcebooks), is a writer in New Hampshire.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, November 2006.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.