What is Shyness?
Shyness is a normal developmental stage in children. It is an emotion that influences how a person feels and behaves around others, and is often exacerbated in unfamiliar situations, particularly for children. Physical symptoms of shyness include trembling, tightness in the chest or blushing and feeling speechless, breathless or shaky. Shyness is associated with feeling self-conscious, nervous, timid, uncomfortable, bashful or insecure.
How does Shyness Present in Children?
Almost every child will feel shy occasionally, but shyness is certainly a spectrum, and impacts the lives of some children much more significantly. Shyness can present in many different ways, but typically shy children are anxious and inhibited when interacting in social situations or unfamiliar situations.
Shy children usually prefer to observe first, rather than join in immediately, particularly in group situations or with new activities, as they feel more comfortable when they are able to predict what will happen next. Shyness is likely to be exacerbated when meeting new people or if a child feels they are on show or need to perform, such as when speaking in front of others.
Possible Causes of Shyness in Children
There are a multitude of factors working in tandem to create your child’s personality. Some of the potential causes of shyness in children include:
- Genetics – though research has not yet determined the precise degree or nature of the influence of genetics on personality, it has been determined that there are biological differences in the brains of shy people. As your genetics are inherited form your biological parents, this is why there are often similarities between parents’ and their children’s personalities.
- Family relationships – children who have not developed a secure attachment to their primary caregivers, have experienced inconsistent caregiving or trauma are more likely to be shy.
- Learned behaviour – it is well known that children learn through observation, and the most influential role models in their life are their parents, followed by older siblings. Therefore, a child with shy or introverted parents or older siblings may inadvertently learn shyness from them.
- Parenting style – research shows that authoritarian or overprotective parenting styles can cause children to be inhibited and afraid, giving them a greater propensity for shyness.
- Fear of failure – children who have been made to feel as if they are not good enough, or ridiculed for making mistakes, can have a fear of failure that paralyses them in social situations, coming out as shyness.
- Anxiety – children who are anxious, emotionally sensitive or timid are often more likely to exhibit and experience shyness.
- Lack of socialisation – children who do not have much experience in social situations, for example if they have been isolated from others in their early years, are more likely to be uncomfortable as they don’t have the social skills to enable them to manage interactions with others easily yet, which can lead to shyness.
- Harsh criticism or bullying – negative social experiences and interactions, like being subject to harsh criticism, teasing and bullying, can make children more likely to experience shyness.
How to support a shy child
- Be patient and don’t give up on them. Though it can be difficult to parent a shy child sometimes, your unwavering support is key to them being able to gain the confidence to succeed. When experiencing uncomfortable emotions like shyness, it is incredibly valuable for a child to have a trusted person to lean on.
- Avoid labelling your child as shy, and don’t let others label them either. Children (and adults too!) tend to live up to the labels others give them, so doing this is the opposite of helpful for a shy child.
- Encourage your child to talk about feeling shy and share with them about your experiences. Talk through situations in which your child feels shy and ask them what it is that’s making them uncomfortable. Another helpful thing to talk about are your own experiences with feeling shy and how you manage them, which normalises the emotion.
- Model confident behaviour. As we mentioned above, children mimic the behaviour of their parents, so leading by example and modelling relaxed, confident behaviour in social settings can help them to be more confident and at ease.
- Avoid criticising your child for being shy. Criticising or mocking your child for feeling shy can increase their anxiety, so remember to be empathetic and understanding when they are having a hard time.
- Acceptance is key. There is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with or ‘bad’ about being shy; remember, it is a completely normal part of children’s development. Using neutral language around feelings like shyness and avoiding giving them negative labels can go a long way to help. Make sure that your child knows you love their personality just the way it is, shyness included.
Phrases you can Use to Help a Shy Child
It can be difficult to strike the balance between supporting your child and encouraging them to participate, particularly when there is often external pressure on parents in these situations. Here are some helpful phrases you can use:
When speaking to your child:
- “You can stay with me until you’re ready to go play”
- “I see you’re not ready to go in yet. Would you like to hold my hand?”
When speaking to other adults about your shy child:
- “Oh, they like to observe first”
- “He needs to take time, he will join in when he’s ready”
- “She doesn’t seem like she wants to talk right now. That’s okay. Let’s try another time”
What can I do if my child’s Shyness is negatively impacting their day-to-day life?
If your child’s shyness is negatively impacting their everyday life and stopping them from participating in age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate activities and experiences, it is time to seek professional help from your child’s GP or paediatrician who can refer you to specialist services, like a psychologist or counsellor.