Resources & Tips

How can I help my shy child?


Most parents wish their kids would plunge into new situations and make friends easily. Instead shy and cautious children cling to our legs or hang on the sidelines. When someone they don’t know or are not comfortable with talks to them, they lower their eyes and don’t answer. When they refuse to try an unfamiliar activity, we push them to participate. We become disappointed, annoyed, or frustrated with them when they aren’t as outgoing as we’d like.

Let’s take a closer look at shyness:

Try a little understanding. Many of us don’t think of ourselves as shy, but remember how you felt when you walked into an office full of new co-workers or attended a party where you knew no one? Butterflies in your stomach? Everybody is shy to some extent, but most adults learn to find ways to cope because we’ve discovered that hanging back doesn’t work for us. Children haven’t yet learned how to cope with the unfamiliar so they feel even more ill-at-ease and self-conscious.

Recognize that your child doesn’t choose to be shy. He doesn’t cling to you to get your goat. He genuinely feels uncomfortable in new or strange settings. Some researchers say that two out of five children are shy by nature. This temperament trait is believed to be partly genetic. Some kids are born shy, just as they are born with brown eyes or curly hair. We can’t re-engineer this inborn characteristic, but we can help kids become more relaxed and adaptable.

Helpful.  If you recognize a pattern in the way your child reacts to new people or situations, expect some resistance.  Then give him extra time to become comfortable.  For example, if he signs up for karate and wants to quit after the first class, you could suggest that he sit and watch the next session or discuss it with the instructor.  Make it clear that this will be your child’s decision.  By giving him some choice in the matter, you support his autonomy. That helps him feel that he has some control and gives him a little more confidence about venturing into uncharted waters.

Curb the criticism.  A shy child hears enough criticism – from herself and others.  Whenever an adult pushes her (“Don’t be so timid! Just audition for the school play. You’ll land a role if you’d only try.”) she gets the message that there’s something wrong with her for not participating. She probably hears her own voice carping, “I’m such a chicken for not trying out for that play.”  Children who are naturally reserved are often teased and criticized so they begin to believe this quality is a personal shortcoming.  This undermines self-confidence and does little to encourage them to try new things or be more outgoing.  

Avoid labeling.  When kids repeatedly hear “He’s always shy” or “She’s the shy one in the family,” their hesitancy about trying new things is only reinforced.   Labeled “shy,” they continue to react that way and live up to the expectation.  The label can also translate into negative descriptions, such as  “awkward, withdrawn, a wallflower,” which are hardly confidence-builders. 
Instead, choose your words more carefully when you speak with your child -- and
especially when you talk about him in front of others. An empathic statement like “It’s okay to take a little extra time to get used to new things” shows a child that you understand and accept his feelings.  This is much more effective than a negative comment like “Why are you always so timid?”   When speaking to a teacher or other adult, it’s more constructive to explain “I hope you’ll understand that Rick tends to be somewhat reserved in unfamiliar settings” than to say, “He’s always so shy.”

Build on strengths.  Reticent kids often have low self-esteem, particularly if they’ve been viewed as quiet and shy for a long time.  They probably aren’t the most popular kids at school. They tend to be the last child chosen by their peers for the team.  Because they’re reluctant to raise their hands in class, their intelligence may be under-appreciated. But you know your child’s strengths, and you can help boost his self-confidence and pride in himself. 

Helpful:  If your daughter has few friends her own age, you could encourage her to play with younger children who will undoubtedly look up to her.  A child who resists going to friends’ homes will be more comfortable if he invites them to his house, so suggest he invite friends over. Point out that his particular talent – in math or art – could help tutor other kids.  If your child doesn’t speak up in class, talk with the teacher about helping ease her into small group discussions or encourage her to express herself through written or artistic work.

At home, don’t let your more outgoing children overshadow a reserved child. Let the dominating kids know that they need to stop and give their quieter sibling equal time.

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.  Children who are naturally bashful will probably always feel somewhat anxious in unfamiliar settings, but they can be taught certain skills to become more at ease.  For example, teach them how to answer the telephone in a clear voice and take messages.  This builds confidence without having to look a stranger in the eye. 

Before going to any new event – a birthday party, large family gathering or religious ceremony – talk with your child about what to expect.  The more specific information kids have – about who will be there, how long the event will last, what exotic foods may be offered – the more their fears will be relieved.  They’ll also be more comfortable if you do some role-playing in advance.  (“Pretend I’m Uncle Charles, and I come up to you with my hand outstretched.  What will you do and say?”)   Parents often overlook the fact that all children benefit when taught basic manners -- how to shake hands, introduce themselves, look people in the eye.  Knowing these social skills gives children reassurance that they won’t stick their feet in their mouths.

Finally, keep in mind that a shy nature isn’t a bad thing.  Kids who are slow to warm up are less likely to follow the crowd and take potentially dangerous risks. For instance, shy children are less likely to get in a car with a stranger.  And clingy four-year-olds tend to grow up to become more cautious teenagers who tend to wait and size up a situation before engaging in risky behavior with friends.


More Solutions to Parents' FAQs can be found in Nancy's books and articles found below.

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