Shyness: Protective Armor or Social Barrier?

Question: Dr.Andie, my five-year-old son has been described by his teachers as "a shy, reserved child". I have a nephew who is also Andrew's age, and although they play together, my son is definitely quieter and not as socially interactive as his cousin. My pediatrician says he will outgrow this, but I'm concerned that his shyness will get in the way of his ability to make friends and get along in the classroom. He starts kindergarten in the Fall. Is there anything I can do to help him with this?

Dr. Andie: First, let me say that shyness is something that everyone experiences at one time or another. In different times during a child's development, like at 6 mos. or at two years of age, a child will be more hesitant around other people. The good news is that shyness is something that we can work with but it will take a lot of commitment on your part as a parent. The question is :"Are you up for the challenge"?

Parent: Yes, of course! It's painful for me to watch when he has to be in new social situations and he's so uncomfortable! What actually causes shyness? Is it something they are born with?

Dr. Andie: There are several reasons why children become shy. Sometimes children are born with a temperament that creates them to be more sensitive and reactive to new situations and have a more difficult time in warming up to others. There are some studies that also show that shyness runs in families. How much is hereditary and how much is learned and modeled behavior is not quite discernable. Another cause of shyness is inconsistent parenting. Inconsistency of parenting practices where the parent is lax one day and over involved the next, can cause children to feel insecure and lead to avoiding social interactions and situations. A third reason is the child's lack of experience in social situations. Children, especially young ones, are always being exposed to new situations. But if they have not learned how to effectively be part of social situations, they may become frightened and withdraw. Another cause of shyness is low self-esteem which causes the child to have low opinions of themselves. They feel if they feel this way, others may feel the same way and this belief can lead to shy behavior. Lastly, children that are overprotected do not have the chance to become socially independent. Because of this overprotection, they don't have the opportunity to develop confidence to make decisions for themselves. This creates that cycle of insecurity which leads to shyness.

Parent: Listening to these causes, I can honestly say Andrew was such a quiet baby and didn't like new situations. And I guess that knowing this, I probably tended to over protect him. Is it too late to do anything?

Dr. Andie: Don't worry! Sometimes as parents all we can do is our very best. You seem to be a caring, loving parent. Here are some social skill strategies to work with your shy child on:

  1. Provide shy children with lots of love, affection, and attention. All children thrive when they feel loved and cared for by their parents, especially if it is unconditional. Make sure that you let your child know that he will always be loved, no matter what he says or does.
  2. Practice modeling non-shy behaviors: Shy children can model others expressing oneself emotionally in appropriate ways, interacting with others, and doing socially appropriate skills such as introducing yourself to others and showing manners. If your child doesn't know how to do this, role play shaking hands, and how you introduce yourself to others. Make it a game.
  3. Let go of the label "shy child" and discourage others from labeling also. I recall you said that his teacher described Andrew as "shy and reserved". Children that are labeled as shy by their parents or others may feel that they have to live up to that expectation. If for some reason you feel that you must explain Andrew's bashfulness, just say, " Sometimes Andrew takes time to get use to new people and situations. Once he gets used to you, he'll feel like talking". Notice I didn't shy or reserved.
  4. Help shy children feel more capable: Give your child some responsibilities like some chores that are challenging but are within the child's capabilities. Encourage them being to able to make decisions. When kids feel important, that enhances their self love for themselves.
  5. Teach communication skills: Sometimes shy children act quiet because they do not have the proper communication skills and don't know what to say. A great game to play is Guest Show. Pretend you are the interviewer and "interview" your child about their favorite foods, and other things about them. Then switch roles and let your child interview you. You can move into more definitive role playing like what to say when someone sits next to you on the bus. When shy children feel more capable of knowing what to say in conversations during a social situation, they gain more confidence to engage these behaviors in real life situations.
  6. Do not cplet shy children isolate themselves: Because shy children get uncomfortable around other people, they have a tendency to withdraw and spend time alone. Encourage shy children to partake in friendships and activities with others and other attempts for them to be sociable.

Parent: Thank you for sharing these ideas with me. I feel I have some strategies to use and work with my son's shyness. You talk about in your book, The Best Investment, parents being parent investors in their children's lives. Now I know how to invest my time and energy with this issue!

Dr. Andie: As a Parent Investor in your child's life, you'll see that the time and energy in teaching your child some of these important social and emotional skills will be the best investment you can make! You are actually giving him skills that will benefit him now and for the rest of his life! Any good investment is one that reaps long term benefits and maximum growth! Good luck!


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