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How To Help A Shy Child

As a child, the humiliations were endless. There was the time I locked myself in the bathroom to avoid participating in the school spelling bee and was finally dragged, kicking and screaming, to the auditorium by my mother. There was having to face the cheerful doormen in our apartment building who always asked me about my day.

But the worst was repeatedly having to endure the classic taunt, "Cat got your tongue?" to which I wanted desperately to respond, "No, you idiot! Cat got your brain?" But I couldn't, of course. I was too shy.

Now a recovering shy person, I find myself hoping that my 2-year-old daughter will retain her unparalleled ability to speak up  -- one of my dearest hopes is that she'll be assertive and confident enough to hold her own in the classroom, on the playground, and in the company of strangers in a way that I wasn't throughout my own childhood.

Christina Frank writes about health, psychology, and parenting issues for several national magazines. She lives in New York City.

Born or Bred Shy?

Recent research suggests that as many as one in five children is born with a genetic predisposition to shyness. "But not every child who inherits a disposition toward shyness becomes shy," says Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Harvard University. "And of course, environment alone  -- if it's harsh or anxiety-arousing  -- can make a child without a temperamental bias become shy."

But more important than knowing why a child is shy is knowing how to tell if her bashfulness is problematic.

"Clinging and stranger anxiety is natural in a child up to about 15 months, and normal up to about age 3," says Lawrence Welkowitz, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Keene State College, in New Hampshire, and coauthor of The Hidden Face of Shyness. "The same behavior in a child of 5, 6, or 7 is not."

You also want to look at how frequently and in how many different types of situations a child experiences anxiety. Does he cry every time you drop him off at preschool? Is he unable to approach a group of kids his own age? Does he still cling to you in the store or when meeting new adults? The longer behaviors like these persist without improvement, the greater the cause for concern. Still, unless a child demonstrates an extreme form of shyness  -- such as selective mutism (refusing to speak to certain people) or social phobia (involving school avoidance, and an excessive fear of being evaluated, among other symptoms)  -- counseling usually isn't needed. Sensitive parenting is the best approach. Some guidelines:

Spare the (Subtle) Sarcasm

Kids have a tough enough time fending off taunts from other children. The last thing they need is to be called "chicken" or "mama's boy" by a grown-up in a misguided attempt to rouse them out of their shyness. "Humiliation, in the form of teasing or sarcasm, won't work and doesn't acknowledge that the child is struggling with real fears," says Welkowitz.

Above all, it's important that you respect your child's bashful temperament, says Jonathan Cheek, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Wellesley College and author of Conquering Shyness: A Personalized Approach. "Try not to compare him with more outgoing siblings or friends. Validate his feelings by saying something like, 'Yes, it's scary to go to a party where you don't know anyone,' and then suggest things he can do to get through an intimidating situation. Sharing an experience from your own childhood can be helpful."

Avoid Overprotection

Corene Long, a Kennewick, WA, mother of two, recognized herself in her 12-year-old daughter, Heather. "She had the same fear I do of rejection and of making a fool of herself," says Long. "When she was younger, I used to overcompensate at the playground. I'd follow Heather around, climbing on the jungle gym and speaking to the other kids for her  -- telling them it was her turn on the slide, or whatever." But intervening every time a child is in an uncomfortable situation only reinforces the shyness. "It's important to allow the child to experience moderate amounts of challenge, frustration, and stress," says Cheek. "With your emotional support, she can learn to cope better on her own."

Help Your Child to Hobnob

"In most cases, shy kids do want to join in and be part of things," says Jennine Moritz, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University's Treatment Center for Children, in Richmond. "But it's easiest to start small." Rather than sending your child out onto a playground full of kids, invite one or two over to your house to play. Being on his own turf will help your child feel more secure, adds Cheek.

If he has trouble initiating play, introduce an organized game in which everyone has a turn. Or take him to a storytelling event at the library, where there will be opportunities to meet other kids, but you'll be nearby. "You want to arrange but not push," says Welkowitz. "Allow your child to cling to you if he wants, but don't entertain him or even talk to him much. Set up a situation where he'll have to go elsewhere for the goodies  -- in this case, companionship."

Often, shy kids are more comfortable playing with younger children. "There's nothing wrong with that," says Cheek. "Nor is there anything wrong with a shy boy who prefers playing with girls."

Create a Connection With Teachers and Caregivers

Even though there's no correlation between shyness and intelligence, research shows that bashful kids are frequently viewed as less intelligent or less advanced than their more aggressive peers, and they tend to get less attention from teachers simply because they don't demand it, says Cheek. Therefore, communication between teachers and parents is essential. "At the start of each school year, a new teacher won't understand why my daughter doesn't participate," says Candi Hagar, a Richmond, NH, mother of a fifth-grader. "Every year I have to talk to her teachers so that she gets graded on the basis of her work, not on her participation."

Another useful strategy is a buddy system in which a shy child is paired with a more outgoing one. "This worked wonders for my son," says one mother of a 5-year-old. "If I let him bring a friend with him to an event or a new activity, it's like he's suddenly invincible."

Practice Being Brave

The only way a shy child will learn to be more outgoing and assertive is through practice. It's up to the parent to allow her to take some risks. Moritz suggests giving small assignments, such as making a phone call to a relative, ordering for herself in a restaurant, or speaking in front of classmates. "Remind her that there are all these great things about her," she says. "Say, 'You can do it, just give it a try.'" Shower her with praise or give a reward, like a trip to the ice cream store or a sticker that goes on a weekly chart.

Be a Social Role Model

By watching us and others, our kids just naturally learn everyday social skills, like how to start a conversation or how to express feelings. But a child with social anxieties may need extra support to pick up these tricks. "Make sure your child has plenty of opportunities to see you interacting with others in a relaxed way," says Cheek. "More important, when he talks to you, listen attentively and respond to what he's saying. This will help him feel that what he has to say is interesting and will teach him how to listen and respond to others."

Use Positive Preparation

Corene Long found that rehearsing situations ahead of time eased her daughter's anxiety enormously. "The year before Heather entered middle school, she was already anxious," says Long. "So sometime before September, we went to her new school and looked at her classroom. When school started, she felt more comfortable." Another tactic is to imagine best- and worst-case scenarios, like for show-and-tell or a birthday party. "If Heather can visualize the best possible outcome as well as the worst," says Long, "it really helps her to get up the courage to participate."

Calming techniques can also be useful for anxious children. Moritz suggests having kids close their eyes and do deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, starting from the head down. "Then, when they're in a very relaxed state, talk through a situation that frightens them  -- like going up to a new bunch of kids and joining in. It's impossible to be very calm and anxious at the same time." Another exercise: Have the child imagine himself as his favorite superhero, actor, or TV character. "One child I worked with imagined himself as Tom Cruise, who was his hero. I had him envision how Cruise would handle speaking in front of the class or approaching a new group of peers. It really empowered him," says Moritz.

Fortunately, many kids outgrow their shyness by around age 8. Even if they remain timid, that may be a good thing. "Because they don't want to be the center of attention, such kids are less likely to get in trouble in any way  -- with the law, with drugs," says Kagan. "And they tend to study harder because they don't like their teachers to criticize them."

As for me, I still consider myself somewhat shy, but the tendency has faded significantly over the years  -- I may be hesitant initially to say something, but I'll say it anyway. Today if someone dared ask me if the cat had my tongue, I'd tell him, "Not at all." And I'll teach my daughter to say the same thing.