MJ’s mother is worried.
“She’s so shy. Whenever we get together with people, I mean even one or two people, she hangs behind me. I don’t know how to encourage her.”
MJ is four years old. When I first meet her, I see what her mother means. MJ stands behind her mom. She sneaks a peak at me. She retreats. When she finally does come forward, she holds tight to her mom’s hand. I ask her to tell me her whole name. “MaryJane,” she whispers. I tell her that her mom and I are going to talk a bit and that it’s okay if she decides she’d like to see what’s in the toy corner. Mom and I talk. Sure enough, in about 10 minutes, MJ is exploring the books and toys.
Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central’s Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
MJ is perfectly normal. What looks to her mom like shyness is a developmental stage. Many preschoolers are reticent when confronted with new people, new situations, or new demands. They hang back a bit and observe what is going on rather than jump right in. Once MJ had time to survey the room and to decide that I was probably a benign grownup, she felt confident enough to explore new territory. As kids like MJ get more accustomed to meeting new people and mastering new challenges, their “shyness” often naturally fades away.
Other children are “shy” by temperament. Ask any mother of two or more children. Children are different from the time they start moving in the womb. Some are active and bouncy. Others quietly shift from one position to another. Once they pop out into the world, they are still very much themselves with temperaments to match the activity their mothers felt while they were getting ready to be born.
Quieter infants often become the children who are more comfortable being with one or two friends instead of a large group, who are uncomfortable with unexpected social demands, and who are sensitive to how others are behaving. Often they are more easily upset by transitions and change and take longer to settle down. This shy temperament is as much a part of who a child is as eye color and handedness.
Not surprisingly, temperamentally shy children often have at least one shy parent. The shy child may have inherited his temperament from his shy and sensitive parent or he may have learned to approach new situations with some caution because that’s what he’s observed his parent doing. Probably, as with most things, it’s a combination of both nature and nurture.
Dos and Don’ts for Helping Normally Shy Children Learn to Manage the Social World
- Don’t consider shyness a character flaw. It’s a difference, not a defect. Shy people are often sensitive observers who provide balance, thoughtfulness, and care to the social mix.
- Don’t try to cajole, scold, or pep-talk the child out of his shyness. This will only frustrate you and embarrass the child. Some kids even come to believe that their parents don’t like them!
- Don’t insist that your child show off new skills. Some children are natural performers. Not the shy child. The shy child prefers to be in the audience or stay backstage. Accept that not everyone needs to be in the spotlight.
Dos and Don’ts for Helping Normally Shy Children Learn to Manage the Social World Continued…
- Don’t avoid situations where your child is uncomfortable. Mastering any skill, including comfort with other people, takes practice. Start with situations that are less likely to overwhelm your child and introduce her to gradually more demanding ones.
- Do clearly and consistently let the child know that being shy is an okay way to be. When shy children feel supported by the adults around them and accepted for who they are, they generally learn how to work their way into new situautions with new people.
- Do meet the pace of the child. Children who are slow to adjust to new situations and new people often just need a little more patience and a little more time. Take that into consideration when planning activities so that there is time for the child to join in at his or her own pace.
- Do make time for overlapping with a sitter or daycare or school. Shy children often have trouble with transitions. Allow enough time to stay with your child for awhile. Once he’s engaged with others or involved in play, say a quiet goodbye and ease out.
- Do build on successes whenever you can. When the child becomes anxious in a situation she managed before, matter-of-factly remind her and express confidence that she can do it again.
- Do practice some social skills at home. Join in imaginative play with a dollhouse or stuffed animals or make-believe. Set up situations where the characters have to manage a novel situation or new people. Encourage your child to come up with ways to handle it.
- Do be a positive role model. Greet people with a smile. Engage in social talk when your child can observe you doing so. Talk with her about situations where you felt uncertain but found a way to join in.
Shy Child to Healthy Adult
Sensitive, shy, quiet children can and do grow up to be healthy adults. Some maintain their shyness and choose occupations and people that will accommodate their more reserved approach to life. Others either naturally outgrow their shyness or decide to push themselves to master it. Still others develop a gregarious outgoing persona but always feel their shyness inside. With fully 50 percent of American adults reporting that they consider themselves at least somewhat shy, shyness clearly isn’t abnormal.
When is shyness a problem? Only when it is so pronounced that the child can’t manage being away from familiar people or when it blocks the child’s ability to develop new skills. Children who are in distress due to their shyness are children who cry for long periods of time when they are separated from the familiar or who get highly upset by new situations. If your child’s “shyness” develops into such fearfulness that he or she can’t tolerate being with other people or can’t get comfortable at daycare or school or with a babysitter, it may be time to get a professional opinion. Your pediatrician can refer you to a child psychologist who can evaluate what is going on and give you some advice for how to help your child.