Shyness is common in young children. Many toddlers will hide behind their parent’s leg, sucking their thumb or looking away when other people (especially strangers) address them. Especially when around well meaning strangers or children who aren’t quite so shy it can feel so tempting to lure our child out – putting them in the spotlight and say something like:
“Come on – don’t be shy.. go talk to Nikki”
Or worse yet, talk about our child as if they weren’t there:
“She’s so shy – she always does this”.
This approach may make us appease our social discomfort when around others and make us feel less embarrassed that our child isn’t performing according to whatever social norm we’ve internalised. But for the child – it never feels good to
a. be asked to violate their own boundaries
b. be labelled
So how are we supposed to support our shy and perhaps introverted child?
Here’s what you need to know
- Some children are more prone to shyness but won’t act shy when they grow older
Studies show that the vast majority of children who were described as painfully shy as children grow up to be socially confident as adults. You might want to reflect on your own journey in order to test this finding.
I was a shy child. Apprehensive in new social situations, wary of men with beards and petrified of any situation that required me to perform and have the spotlight shone on me. Except – if the audience was my family. Within the safety of my own family I was quite the entertainer. Charming and silly even and – as my mum kindly phrased it; born with a lot to say (polite way of saying that I was a chatter box).
Yet, if you were to meet me now you would call me many things – but shy wouldn’t be one of them.
- Shyness is not the same as introversion
Many of us assume that being shy is a sign of introversion. This isn’t necessarily the case. The terms, introversion and extroversion refer to how we as people best replenish our energy.
For the introverted child the mind needs times to rest. By providing opportunities for solitude or by taking a break from environments that feel overstimulating an introverted child will be able to thrive. This is how they replenish their tank – and can best re-charge their system to sustain the demands of social life.
When these needs are not met the introverted child can become stressed and experience constant overwhelm which can give rise to feelings of anxiety and a host of negative behaviours.
By contrast, for the extroverted child being among people, in sensory rich environments will feel like the ideal way to recharge and gain nourishment. The extroverted child will struggle with prolonged periods of solitude and will miss surrounding him/herself with people in order to feel fully alive.
- Shyness ensures that the child is connected to his/her attachment figures
A couple I coach came to me with concerns about their 4 year old son who they felt was painfully shy and introverted. Adopted from birth, Mum and dad struggled to accept that he had only one friend and feared he was loosing out socially. In exploring the issues I asked the parents if they themselves could identify with being shy as a child to which dad confessed that he too had been painfully shy.
“But I’m much better now,” he quickly added.
And this is part of the problem.
The fact that we see shyness or introversion as something that we need to overcome or treat prevents us from staying open to all the gifts that introversion offer and miss what shyness affords young children.
Shyness is linked to certain temperaments and will be evident within the first couple of years of a child’s life. It serves the function of staying close to those the child is in close relationship with and keep at a distance those who fall outside this category. For a young child this is not something that feels conscious or can be changed at will. But let me share with you what you can do as a parent to encourage your child to feel safe enough to open up their social world over time:
How can you support your shy child?
While some kids have a stronger genetic predisposition to shyness, healthy development as separate, social, and adaptive being is the ultimate answer to growing out of it. The fact is, the shyness instincts don’t ever leave us, only the need to operate out of them as much.
Here’s a few ideas:
- Non-shaming approach
When a child senses that who they are or that their shyness is an issue and something we want to change it can foster a sense of shame. This only serves to fix their shyness. So the more we can refrain from pushing our child into social situations and instead accept the fact that it may take a few birthday parties of us sitting with our child on our lap before they’ll want to join the other partygoers – the quicker the process.
- Play play play
The more developed the self becomes the more force there is to express oneself and bypass the shyness instinct. And selfhood is created through play. Ample opportunity to create, discover and explore who they are and all sides of themselves.
Try to create as many opportunities for unstructured activities, school free and entertainment free time as you possibly can. This is when play can unfold. And if your child is more shy than their sibling actively take interest in their views and what they make of their world, as more gregarious and talkative children are more likely to attract all the attention.
- Match-make them to people you trust and love
The more we can take the lead in this respect the more likely our shy child is to open up and allow others to care for them. This means – warm them up through repeated exposure to people who will care for them in their lives; teacher, childminder, grandparent, aunts and uncles – but also the doctor or dentist.
It might be a good idea to bring your child along to your next routine dental check up – and show your child that you trust this person. When our shy child feels that we like someone they are more likely to follow our lead.
I invite you to reflect on your own experience of being shy – and ask yourself what felt good for you. Or simply put yourself in your shy child’s shoes. The less you push and the less negative attention you draw to your child’s shyness, the more likely your child will feel safe to no act out of this attachment need longer than necessary.