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Helping the Shy Child

Shyness is a common but little understood emotion. Everyone has felt uneasy or self-conscious in new social situations. However, at times shyness may interfere with optimal social development and restrict children’s learning.

What Is Shyness?

The basic feeling of shyness is universal, and may have evolved as an adaptive mechanism used to help individuals cope with novel social stimuli. Shyness is felt as a mix of emotions, including fear and interest, tension and pleasantness. Increase in heart rate and blood pressure may occur. An observer recognizes shyness by an averted, downward gaze and physical and verbal reticence. The shy person’s speech is often soft, tremulous, or hesitant. Younger children may suck their thumbs: some act coy, alternately smiling and pulling away.

Shyness involves anxiety in social situations and reluctance to join in social interactions. It can include a child’s not speaking to others, even when asked a direct question; not taking part in games and activities; or not going into places such as the school playground unless accompanied by a parent or close friend (Malouff, 2008). Feeling shy can cause a child to be embarrassed by public attention—even good attention. Most children are shy in some situations, such as beginning a new child care program or preschool. A reserved personality is not a problem in itself. But shy behavior is a problem when it makes a child unhappy or when it keeps him from making friends and from taking part in play and other learning opportunities.

Children may be vulnerable to shyness at particular developmental points. Fearful shyness in response to new adults emerges in infancy. Cognitive advances in self-awareness bring greater social sensitivity in the second year. Self-conscious shyness-the possibility of embarrassment-appears at 4 or 5. Early adolescence ushers in a peak of self-consciousness.

What Situations Make Children Feel Shy?

New social encounters are the most frequent causes of shyness, especially if the shy person feels herself to be the focus of attention. An “epidemic of shyness” has been attributed to the rapidly changing social environment and competitive pressures of school and work with which children and adults must cope. Adults who constantly call attention to what others think of the child, or who allow the child little autonomy, may encourage feelings of shyness. Some children are dispositionally shy: they are more likely than other children to react to new social situations with shy behavior. Even these children, however, may show shyness only in certain kinds of social encounters.

Researchers have implicated both nurture and nature in these individual differences. Some aspects of shyness are learned. Children’s cultural background and family environment offer models of social behavior. Some parents, by labeling their children as shy, appear to encourage a self- fulfilling prophecy, Adults may cajole coyly shy children into social interaction, thus reinforcing shy behavior.

There is growing evidence of a hereditary or temperamental basis for some variations of dispositional shyness. In fact, heredity may play a larger part in shyness than in any other personality trait. Adoption studies can predict shyness in adopted children from the biological mother’s sociability. Extremely inhibited children show physiological differences from uninhibited children, including higher and more stable heart rates. From ages 2 to 5, the most inhibited children continue to show reticent behavior with new peers and adults. Patterns of social passivity or inhibition are remarkably consistent in longitudinal studies of personality development.

Despite this evidence, most researchers emphasize that genetic influences probably account for only a small proportion of self-labeled shyness. Even hereditary predispositions can be modified. Adopted children do acquire some of the adoptive parents’ social styles, and extremely inhibited toddlers sometimes become more socially comfortable through their parents’ efforts.

When Is Shyness a Problem?

Shyness can be a normal, adaptive response to potentially overwhelming social experience. By being somewhat shy, children can withdraw temporarily and gain a sense of control. Generally, as children gain experience with unfamiliar people, shyness wanes. In the absence of other difficulties, shy children have not been found to be significantly at-risk for psychiatric or behavior problems. In contrast, children who exhibit extreme shyness which is neither context-specific nor transient may be at some risk. Such children may lack social skills or have poor self-images.

Shy children have been found to be less competent at initiating play with peers. School-age children who rate themselves as shy tend to like themselves less and consider themselves less friendly and more passive than their non-shy peers. Such factors negatively affect others’ perceptions. Zimbardo reports that shy people are often judged by peers to be less friendly and likeable than non-shy people. For all these reasons, shy children may be neglected by peers, and have few chances to develop social skills. Children who continue to be excessively shy into adolescence and adulthood describe themselves as being lonelier, and having fewer close friends and relationships with members of the opposite sex, than their peers.

Strategies for Helping a Shy Child

Parents who accept and support their child without being overprotective help him become more comfortable in social interactions. Experiencing success in some social situations encourages a child to take part in future ones. Teasing or ridiculing a child, speaking for him, labeling a child as shy, or forcing social interaction are not helpful.

But there are positive ways that parents can help: Express appreciation to your child for who she is. Shy children are often good listeners and less aggressive than others. Many spend time playing happily on their own, are close to their parents, and are loyal friends.

1. Know and Accept the Whole Child. Being sensitive to the child’s interests and feelings will allow you to build a relationship with the child and show that you respect the child. This can make the child more confident and less inhibited.

2. Allow the Shy Child to Warm Up to New Situations. Pushing a child into a situation which he or she sees as threatening is not likely to help the child build social skill. Help the child feel secure and provide interesting materials to lure him or her into social interactions.

3. Encourage eye contact. As you’re talking with your child say, “Look at me.” or “Put your eyes on my eyes.” or “I want to see your eyes.” By consciously reinforcing the skill and modeling it regularly, your child will soon be using eye contact. Tip: If your kid is uncomfortable about using eye contact, tell her to look at the bridge of the speaker’s nose. With a few practices, she usually no longer needs the technique, and will look more confidently into the speaker’s eyes.

4. Teach conversational openers and closers. Make a list with your kid of easy conversation openers he can use with different groups of people such as: what he could say to someone he already knows, an adult he hasn’t met, a friend he hasn’t seen in a while, a brand-new student at a school, or a child he’d like to play with on the playground. Then take turns rehearsing them together, until your child feels comfortable trying them on his own. Hint: Practicing conversation skills on the telephone with a supportive listener on the other end is always less threatening for shyer kids than doing so face-to-face.

5. Rehearse social situations. Prepare your kid for an upcoming social event by describing the setting, expectations, and the attendees. Then help him practice how to meet others, table manners, basic conversational skills, and even how to say good-bye gracefully.

6. Practice skills with younger peers. Philip Zimbardo, renowned shyness expert, recommends pairing older shy kids with younger children for brief play periods. So create opportunities for your kid to play with one other child who is younger: a younger sibling, cousin, neighbor, or one of your friend’s younger kids. For teens, try baby-sitting: it’s a great way for a shy kid to earn money as well as practice social skills–starting a conversation, using eye contact–that she was reticent about trying with kids her age.

7. Arrange One-On-One Play Opportunities. Dr. Fred Frankel, a psychologist and developer of the world famous UCLA Social Skills Training Program, suggests “one-on-one play dates” as the best way for kids to build social confidence. This is a time when your kid invites only one child over for a couple of private play hours to get to know one another and practice friendship-making skills. Provide snacks and then try to keep interruptions to a minimum: siblings should not be included and television viewing should not be a play option.

8. Build Self-Esteem. Shy children may have negative self-images and feel that they will not be accepted. Reinforce shy children for demonstrating skills and encourage their autonomy. Praise them often. “Children who feel good about themselves are not likely to be shy”.

References Henderson, Lynne, & Zimbardo, Philip. (2008). III. Shyness and children: Interaction of genetics and environment. Encyclopedia of Mental Health. Retrieved April 8, 2009, from Kagan, Jerome; Snidman, Nancy; & Arcus, Doreen. (2006). The role of temperament in social development. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 771, 485-490. Retrieved April 8, 2009, from Malouff, John. (2008). Helping young children overcome shyness. Retrieved April 8, 2009, from

Bahareh Talei, Psy.D. Clinical Psychologist PSY21252 Diagnostic & Counseling Center, Inc. Phone: (818) 324-6594 Email: Website:

Dr. Bahareh Talei received her Doctorate of Psychology (Psy.D.) from Pepperdine University, Graduate School of Education and Psychology. Dr. Talei is a licensed psychologist and is co-founder of Diagnostic & Counseling Center (DCC). Her experience has primarily been in working with children and adolescents with various disabilities such as autism and difficulties with learning and attention. Throughout her career, Dr. Talei has been actively engaged in the assessment of a diverse population (e.g., pervasive developmental disorder, learning disorders, central nervous system damage) and training of other professionals. Her experience and interests also includes conducting individual and group psychotherapy with family members of children with developmental disabilities and other populations (e.g., depression, anxiety disorders, and infertility).

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