When a parent describes her child as "shy," I usually ask, "So what were you like when you were growing up." 99% of the time, the parent, almost sheepishly, describes herself or the child's father as having been some form shy (painfully shy, horribly shy, debilitatingly shy, hiding-behind-my-mother shy).
Shyness is one of those temperamental traits with which children are born. In other words, there is a genetic predisposition to being shy. But it isn't the only reason for shyness. A child may be shy as a result of an environmental circumstance, a cultural expectation, or just a stage of development. In their first year babies are notorious for shying away from strangers. In their second year, toddlers become socially aware and sensitive. In their third and fourth years, young children become plain old self conscious and easily embarrassed. All of these are what we call developmental shyness. With age it will likely disappear.
But the shyness that sticks around need not be a sentence to solitary life, a life without friends, without social experiences and interactions. With the help of supportive, accepting parents, family members, and teachers, young children can be helped to cope with their shyness and find ways to feel more comfortable as they navigate their expanding worlds.
Tips and scripts for helping the shy child
Avoid using the word "shy." The world views shyness as an undesirable trait, so find another word to describe your child, both to the child and to the world. She might be quiet, sensitive, reserved, cautious, introverted, reactive, or slow-to-warm-up.
Never use shyness as an excuse, to your child or to outsiders. The child who hears "Oh, she is just shy" will fall back on the label instead of making the effort to come out.
Know that being shy is not a bad thing. Accept your child for who she is, knowing that certainly situations make her feel uncomfortable and that it may take her time to warm up. She cannot help who she is anymore than you could help who you were. It's not personal; it is part of who she is. You love her for all that she is, including her sensitivity.
Have reasonable expectations. Don't insist that your child "run off and play with the kids" when you know she just can't do it. Allow your child the time she needs to warm up.
Keep the attention off your child. When your colleague gets silence when she greets your child, refocus the attention away from your child. Everyone will feel better.
"Julia is getting used to this new situation. So, how long have you known the Greens?"
Allow for solitary play before involving others. Bring a familiar toy with you and suggest that your daughter may want to color while she gets comfortable. She will feel better having something on which to fall back, as she warms up to the new situation.
Growing up and growing out is a process. Help your child to practice baby steps as she learns to navigate uncomfortable situations.
"I know it is hard for you to say "hi" to new people, so all you need to do is look up and smile. You might want to wave, or nod your head, or you can even say 'I don't feel like talking.'"
Practice the social skills your child may someday be able to use. Using dolls, stuffed animal friends, or just family members, practice different scripts for greetings and departures and for entering social situations. ("Hi. My name is Susie. Can I help you dig?) As with any actor, knowing the lines to use makes the scene much easier to manage.
Model the social skills you want your child to learn. Seeing you shake hands, smile, and say hello is a lesson your child will internalize and likely use sometime in the future.
Originally published in 2009.