As a parent of a very shy child, I’ve worried that my daughter’s introverted personality will affect the way people see her, and might make them less likely to try to befriend her or engage with her. I worry others won’t see how amazing my kid is.

It’s been a challenge to figure out  how to encourage a shy child to speak up and, particularly, how to best support a shy kid in a society that celebrates outgoing, extroverted people. I sometimes feel judged as a parent when she refuses to respond to others’ questions or comments, or won’t make eye contact despite teaching her manners. It’s taken a lot of effort and work to stop making excuses for her, to teach her the skills she’ll need in life, and to let her be the person she is without trying to make her into someone else.

Author of books on childhood shyness, Michael Reist, states, “When parents or other adults make attempts to correct shyness, the child hears the message that he doesn’t fit in. Instead, we should be teaching him that it’s OK if he isn’t the same as everyone else.” He believes we should shift our focus away from trying to change a quiet child’s personality. Through altering the way we think about shyness, and teaching our children social skills, we can help them survive (and maybe even thrive).

Understanding Shyness and Its Causes

Is shyness written in our DNA, or does it come from how we’re raised? Nature or nurture—that is the question when it comes to what makes some kids shy and others social butterflies. Well, turns out it’s a little bit of both! Research shows shyness runs in families—twins studies reveal it’s about 50% genetic. So shyness tendencies can be inherited, just like having blue eyes or curly hair. But don’t blame it all on mom and dad’s DNA; life experiences shape us too. Shy kids often grow up in protective families, giving them fewer chances to be bold and brave. Positive social interactions help build confidence, while stressful events can make even outgoing kids crawl into their shells.

Shy Child vs. Autism

  • Clarify the differences between shyness and autism to help parents understand their child’s behavior.
    Is your child shy or does their behavior fall on the autism spectrum? The CDC offers signs to look out for when it comes to autism, but it can be tough for parents to tell. Shy kids avoid social situations and need time to warm up. Autistic kids also shun socializing, but for different reasons. Shy kids are anxious, but adapt their behavior to social norms around others once they’re comfortable. Autistic kids struggle with social skills no matter how relaxed they feel. Shy kids tend to have close friends once out of their shells. Autistic kids have a harder time bonding and communicating, even with parents. The good news? Early intervention can help both shy and autistic kids thrive. If your child’s shyness is concerning you, it’s best to seek an expert assessment to clarify whether extreme shyness or autism is causing their social struggles. Understanding the root cause is key to getting your kid the right support.

Can shy children eventually outgrow their shyness?

Shy kids have many paths to overcome timidity. Nurturing parenting provides a safe base for them to gain confidence. Skill-building programs teach assertiveness and conversation skills. For techniques that you can use, read our article on How to build self esteem and self confidence in your child. With time, your shy child will realize they have a voice worth sharing.

Tips For Helping Shy Kids:

Avoid Overprotection:

Try not to “overprotect” shy kids; rather, provide them with plenty of opportunities to learn and practice social skills while offering them tools and strategies to manage their stress. For example, rather than letting them opt out of a loud crowded birthday party, perhaps you can arrive early and leave a little early—before things get really raucous.

Avoid Labeling Your Child As “Shy”

When you label your child as “shy,” they might start to act out the “shy” role without making an effort to change. Instead of labeling, try to describe your child’s behavior in other ways. For example, you can say, “Matthew is pensive and thoughtful,” or “Riley likes to observe what’s happening around him before joining in.”

Let Your Children Know How Awesome They Are

Shyness can serve children well in some instances. Shy children tend to be observant and perceptive, and more aware of their surroundings than their same-age kids. Make sure to point out their strengths, and work to build their social skills without trying to change them into someone they’re not.

How To Help A Shy Child Socialize

Teach, model, and reward pro-social skills

You can use puppets, stuffed animals, action figures, or dolls to role-play social interactions. Have the dolls use specific phrases, such as “Hi, my name is …,” and “Can I play too?” And teach concrete skills, like taking deep breaths when they’re nervous. When you see your child attempting to engage others, point out her efforts and offer praise.

Facilitate Making Friends

Arrange playdates for them at home, where they feel comfortable and safe. During interactions, give your child the words he needs to talk with new friends. And you may not be able to leave your children to fend for themselves on these playdates—get in the mix and offer prompts and support, such as, “Ask Johnny his favorite games to play.”

Set Achievable Goals

Set goals for your child for interactions and outings, such as to look at and smile at the waitress at a restaurant. Try to set goals that will be a challenge, but that she can manage. Reward their efforts to do so with a high five, a sticker on a rewards chart, or a treat after dinner.

Try Using Books

Books featuring characters struggling with shyness are a great way to normalize kids’ experiences and teach new ways to overcome their challenges. Here are some reading suggestions:

Know When To Seek Help

If your child’s shyness is impeding their ability to attend school and learn, they’re too anxious to talk to anyone outside of the house, or they simply seem unhappy, it might be time to seek outside help. The professionals at Parents Place can help you to understand what’s happening for your child, and figure out what steps you can take to get your kids the support they need to succeed and be happy. Contact us today for a consultation.
Alyse Clayman, LCSW, is the Center for Children and Youth’s Early Childhood Mental Health Program Director and Clinical Supervisor. For any additional concerns, contact us so we can assist you.