Life

My child is really shy – should I be concerned?

How we frame shyness can make a world of difference, as experts explain. By Abi Jackson.

Being a little quiet and cautious might be no bad thing
Young girl playing with wooden bricks on a living room floor Being a little quiet and cautious might be no bad thing (Alamy Stock Photo)

It’s natural for parents to want the best for their kids. So if they’re not the most outgoing in social settings, you might find yourself worrying whether their shyness will hold them back. But is this necessary, and what’s the best way to approach the topic?

“Shyness is often portrayed as being a barrier and challenge to overcome. If you’ve ever said, ‘I’m so sorry, they’re shy’ while introducing your child, you’re not alone. But reframing and being less apologetic can be really helpful, as shyness is not a character fault,” says Gemma Campbell, counsellor and clinical content specialist at Kooth.

“The label of being ‘shy’ can sometimes be unhelpful, as it can feel like something to be ashamed of. Rather than labelling your child as shy, seeing them as reserved, observant, or cautious could be useful.”

Finding their way in the world

Campbell points out that it’s “not uncommon for children to display some level of shyness from time to time” – especially when they’re “in new environments, starting school, meeting people for the first time, or in new social situations”. And flipping our perspective could help us see things more positively.

“If your child’s shyness is simply about being reserved, rather than extreme shyness that impacts everyday life, it can be important to see some of the very real benefits of being more reserved in nature. For example, you can be a reserved child and still have plenty of inner confidence, self-belief and courage,” says Campbell.

Two young boys playing outdoors (Alamy Stock Photo)

“More reserved children may also be deep thinkers, naturally cautious, fantastic observers, more approachable, and great listeners,” she adds. “If a naturally reserved child is comfortable with themselves, their natural shyness might not be a problem to be solved, but a trait to be understood and respected.”

Parenting writer Tanith Carey, author of The Friendship Maze: How To Help Your Child Navigate Their Way To Positive And Happier Friendships, agrees it’s a good idea to resist negative labelling – and reassures that there’s often nothing to worry about.

“Research has found that shy children tend to have just as many friends as more confident children. It’s just that they may take a little more time to warm up, and their friendship circle a little longer to grow,” says Carey.

“In any case, it’s only relatively recently, since the start of the 20th century, that there’s been a bias in our society towards louder and more extroverted personalities. Now the wheel is turning full circle. Those with socially sensitive temperaments are now increasingly recognised in the workplace, among other places, as having important qualities, such as making more considered decisions, listening, and understanding their peers better.”

Lead with reassurance

In The Friendship Maze, Carey sets out tips for handling the topic sensitively – and suggests trying not to “excuse a more cautious child as ‘shy’ in front of other people so it does not turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the child adopts this as a fixed label”. She also suggests explaining “to your child that they may like to take things slowly and get used to things at [their] own pace, to get the point across that they will eventually come out of their shell”.

Counselling Directory member Georgina Sturmer also believes it’s helpful to lead with reassurance.

“Children look to their parents for reassurance, and to seek acceptance and affection. If we have noticed our child has a natural tendency towards shyness, it’s helpful to reassure them that it’s ok to be a little shy sometimes. This helps them to feel secure in themselves and can bolster their self-esteem,” says Sturmer.

“It can also help to open up communication about their shyness, if a child knows that they won’t be met with blanket disapproval or criticism. It might make it easier for them to explore how certain situations or people might trigger their shyness.”

How can you give them a gentle nudge?

Campbell and Sturmer agree that if you notice your child’s behaviour has changed and they’ve suddenly become withdrawn, or they seem to be getting very distressed in certain situations, it may be worth considering whether there’s something else going on and possibly seeking support. But when it comes to general childhood shyness, are there things parents and carers can do to gently encourage youngsters?

Young children sitting in a row happily outside together (Alamy Stock Photo)

“Depending on your child’s age, you could think about things like arranging playdates or small social gatherings, problem-solving with your child if shyness is standing in the way of something they want to do, or setting them smaller, more achievable goals to increase their confidence and help them eventually reach bigger goals,” suggests Campbell.

“Exploring what’s beneath the shyness might be useful, too. For example, is shyness hiding deeper feelings of anger, frustration, fear, or something else entirely? Gently and sensitively exploring this with your child can be really helpful, as then you can start to work with the feelings, rather than just the outward behaviour.”

Sturmer adds: “Don’t minimise or dismiss their feelings. Show them empathy and validate how they are feeling. Ask them what they need. If you know that your child finds a certain situation tricky, ask them how you can help them to cope. Maybe they need to arrive earlier or later. Maybe they need to visit beforehand to familiarise themselves with the setting. Perhaps they need a chance to explore a one-to-one friendship before entering a group. There’s no one-size-fits-all response, and your child may have the answer that you need.”

Role-modelling could also come into it. As Stumer explains: “You may or may not be shy yourself, but there may be situations that make you feel shy or uncomfortable or out of place. Show your child that you are willing to take risks with yourself too. Explain how a situation makes you feel, and the measures that you take to help yourself to cope.”

You could even create some fun games. “Sometimes shyness comes because we don’t know what to say or do when we meet new people,” Sturmer adds. “Design your own icebreaker that you can play when you enter a setting. What silly questions can you ask? How many people are wearing red clothing? This can help to distract us and give us a sense of purpose.”