Shyness in Children: When is it a Problem?

Shyness in children can be perceived as a problem, depending on the context and severity. But there are pros and cons to shyness. Excessive shyness can hinder a child’s social and emotional development. This may lead to feelings of isolation, low self-esteem, and difficulty in making friends. At the same time, being shy can help children form deep and meaningful connections with others, as they tend to be more attentive listeners and observers. It can also make them more cautious and thoughtful before speaking or acting.

While shyness can help children make deeper, more lasting friendships, there are downsides to being a shy child. Shy children can struggle with public speaking or participating in group activities. That’s why it is important for parents and caregivers to provide support and encouragement to help the shy child build confidence and overcome their fears.

When parents create for them a safe and nurturing environment, shy children can learn to navigate social situations and develop the skills they need to thrive. Encouraging them to participate in social activities at their own pace can boost their confidence and help them overcome their shyness. Additionally, teaching them social skills and modeling positive behavior can benefit shy children.

Don’t Call Them “Shy”

What’s not helpful, however, is using shyness as a label and to excuse poor social skills. “Most shy children are terribly uncomfortable being under a microscope or in the spotlight,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. “They do not like having their pictures taken, being observed, or feeling categorically labeled. If you call your child ‘shy’, the risk is that they may hear it as being flawed or deficient in some way. Best to treat them with respect and without excuses by labeling.”

shy girl holds onto father's legs, separation anxiety

Shyness and Separation Anxiety

For many parents of shy children, separation anxiety is a major issue. Shy children are often afraid to speak up for themselves. That makes it difficult for them to be away from their parents, who often serve as the shy child’s voice. “Many shy children lack the confidence and fortitude to self-advocate for themselves.  This increases their dependency on others to voice their needs and wants and often makes them more anxious when separated from their parents,” says Dr. Walfish.

“If you have a child who displays separation anxiety with great stress at times of saying goodbye to you, it is best not to push or force signing them up for extra-curricular activities. The only place that is an attendance must, is school. Birthday parties for classmates and playdates come next. Extra-curricular activities are optional and should not be enforced. First, deal with the issues that are keeping your child stuck.”

Shy Child, Frustrated Parents

While the shy child can suffer when parting from their parents, in many ways, it’s worse for the parents. Let’s face it—it’s hard to watch your child suffer. In a sense then, separation anxiety is a two-way street. Dr. Walfish explains: “Separation anxiety is never one-sided. This means it is not only in your child but also in you. You need to examine your own feelings that get tripped off when your child struggles, tugs on you, and demands you.

“Many parents collapse into tears and can’t bear their child’s pain. Others feel frustrated and even angry expecting their youngster to ‘get over it’.”

When the frustration mounts, it can be helpful to get a fresh look at the situation from a pair of unbiased eyes. “This is a complicated phenomenon,” says Walfish AKA “Dr Fran.”

“It often helps to get a clean slate professional opinion. Your pediatrician or school director can offer a good referral.”

shy child hides face

Children Relax as They Age

If your child is shy, it may be a comfort to know that children often grow out of being shy. Being shy means being in a state of tension much of the time—even the child’s muscles are tense, tight, and constricted. As the child ages, however, the body relaxes so that the child is no longer “uptight.” “Most children relax and deconstrict as they get older,” says Dr. Fran.

One of the challenges to parenting the shy child is striking the right balance. Parents need to be supportive and encouraging, without forcing the child beyond what they feel capable of handling. If the child balks at attending a birthday party, for example, don’t push it. A birthday party can be a lot for the shy child.

“Some children become overwhelmed by the intense volume, behavioral expectations, and crowd at a birthday party,” says Walfish, who adds that preparation can make a difference. “It helps your child if you prepare her for what the kids will do—step-by-step. ‘First we’ll do this, then the children will . . .’ and so on.”

Playdates: Keep it One On One

When it comes time to begin scheduling playdates, it’s best to stick to one on one. “Two guests is a triangular group and can leave your shy child feeling left out.”

But the real key, according to Dr. Fran, is finding the right playmate—one whose personality is a good fit for your own child’s temperament.  “If your child is shy invite an easygoing gentle child for a playdate. Your child could feel overwhelmed by an extraverted outgoing personality.”

With a playdate, the parent can control the environment to a degree. The parent can choose how many and which children to invite. But a birthday party is different.

shy girl covers eyes at birthday

Birthday Parties

“You cannot control how many children are invited to a birthday party. Do NOT avoid these gatherings. But have a fully supportive plan in place before you go,” says Walfish. “For instance, if your child feels more secure with you nearby, sit near him but as far away as he can comfortably tolerate.

“You want to be supportive without fostering his dependence on you. If your child refuses to participate in games, that’s okay. Let her watch on the sidelines with you at her side. She is there but in her comfort zone. Let her know that her friends are very happy she is with them to celebrate.”

The child who is shy can find it difficult to speak. Don’t push it. It only makes it harder when you try to force them into speech. All it accomplishes, says Dr. Fran, is to shine a spotlight on the child’s struggle, and all that does is drive the child further underground. “If she is angry with you for forcing her to speak (anger is at the root of a child’s withholding speech), she will only become more constricted and silent.”

“There is a disorder called ‘selective mutism.’ It begins with a shy, introverted temperament, and anxiety about being the focus of attention. When the child feels forced to perform or achieve it becomes an issue of control. The child withholds speech as a means of getting back at the intrusive parent who forced them.

“Support your child to allow her to speak on her own terms at her own comfort level,” advises Walfish, but this is often easier said than done—parents of shy children may worry that others will misinterpret their child’s behavior. “The stranger waiting for Tommy to say hi, is likely going to think Tommy is disrespectful or rude. Or, worse yet, that as his parent, you have not done a good job of teaching your child appropriate social skills.”

shy boy retreats to mom's lap, she comforts, strokes hair

Feelings Matter More

The issue, of course is not disrespect or a lack of education, but Tommy’s comfort level with other people. It is helpful for a parent to make a mental note of this, and be reminded that Tommy’s feelings matter more than what outsiders think. With this in mind, the wise parent can sometimes kill two birds with one stone. Dr. Walfish suggests parents encourage their child to say hello, “but should the child turn away and say nothing, you can say, ‘Tommy is working on saying hello to strangers and new friends. Today I’m going to say hi to you for both of us. One day soon Tommy will be able to say hello to you himself.’

“In other words, you are addressing the awkward moment and diffusing it by narrating what is going on and supportively saying Tommy will soon be up for it himself.”

Is there anything positive about being shy in childhood? Absolutely. Shy children are more observant, and more thoughtful, too. They take their time to assess a situation before engaging.

They Recognize Pain

The shy child may also have more empathy and a greater sensitivity to others’ feelings. They recognize pain in others because they feel it themselves. The shy child, so capable of observing others, is skilled at self-reflection, and tends to have a strong sense of self-awareness.

Because they avoid social interactions, shy children tend to be alone a lot of the time. As a result, they are often highly creative and imaginative with a rich inner world. Since they prefer to be on their own, shy children come to be both self-reliant and independent.

While shy children find it difficult to socialize, some develop deep and meaningful relationships, albeit with a smaller circle of friends. Shy children can also often excel at activities requiring focused attention and concentration. That’s because shy children are watchful and observant, and take their time sizing up social situations.

bashful asian boy hides eye with arm on table, peeks out

Warning Signs

Of course, as Dr. Fran points out, everything falls on a continuum or spectrum—shyness isn’t always consistent or the end of the world. “For example, I am an extrovert but I feel shy at a party where I don’t know anyone.

“Shyness becomes more of a problem when you hear from your child’s teacher that your child is consistently silent in class. I have worked with a number of children, more often girls than boys, but not exclusively a female problem, who have never uttered a single word to their teachers. I treated a 5-year-old girl who never went to the bathroom at school because she was required in kindergarten to raise her hand and ask permission. She refused. She did not answer the teacher when asked questions.

“These are warning signs that consultation with a professional is needed. Another warning sign is the child who chooses another child to be her voice. This is exemplified by your shy child choosing one specific child who is the only one she will speak to. If the teacher asks your youngster a question, she answers by telling the chosen child instead of speaking directly to the teacher.”

The most important thing to know about parenting the shy child, just as for any other child, is learning acceptance. Children need to be accepted for who they are. “Your child needs to feel accepted as he is, flaws and all,” says Dr. Fran. “Then, and only then can he emerge out of his safe cocoon and evolve into a freer more comfortable state. Each child is uniquely individual. Embrace him as he is. He will flourish if he doesn’t feel you are trying to change him into someone else.”

Found what you just read useful? Why not consider sending a donation to our Kars4Kids youth and educational programs. Or help us just by sharing!

Subscribe via email

About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.