Helping Your Child Understand and Overcome Shyness

It's okay if your tot's a little timid. Here's how to bring him out of his shell.

A Walk on the Shy Side

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 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."

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