Helping Shy Children Become Social Adults

Social science researchers suggest that around thirty percent of the population regularly experience the intense feelings of self-consciousness and shame associated with the experience of shyness.

For children, shyness can be especially painful and intense because of limits on their ability to filter and balance shy feelings against other, more positive social experiences.  Shyness in children and teens can transform a classroom into an amplifier for self-criticism and negative thoughts, and an event like a piano recital into a dreaded nightmare anticipated weeks before the event.

“My whole childhood seemed like a series of painful social moments and mistakes,” one young adult described of her shyness, “I always felt like I was broken in some way.”

Let’s get straight on what we mean by the term shyness.  Researchers like Phillip Zimbardo agree that there are similar, core feelings that shy people tend to describe, such as shame, negative self-evaluation and resentment.  All of us experience these feelings during embarrassing social moments, but people who tend to be shy experience these feelings more often and feel more affected by them.  It is important to remember that shy children are reacting to intense feelings and not just the situation itself, and this is why trying to convince children to just “get in there and play” doesn’t smooth over the rocky road to social joining.

Shyness researchers also remind us that shy behavior is not a condition or disorder in children, but rather it is a set of behaviors and feelings that are part of a child’s natural temperament. A temperament is a natural or typical way of being that could be influenced by genes and shaped by experience.  Extroversion is a temperament, as well as optimism.  Shy people are sometimes described as introverted, although not all people who prefer to read rather than play actively, or who tend to keep their feelings to themselves are shy.

In our rush to identify mental health disorders in children, we sometimes forget that not every difference or temperament deserves a diagnosis or label.  A child with a shy temperament may tend to have difficulty quickly interpreting social situations, or may be slightly more inhibited in responding to a social situation, but this trait is also found in adults who we would say do not “rush into the fray” and who hold back and think about their response before reacting to others.  There are severe forms of shyness that might qualify as a condition known as social phobia, but the majority of shy people do not have this condition.

What else affects shyness besides a family trait or genetic predisposition?  Traumatic experiences, strong family conflict, and experiences of social embarrassment can also tune children into the feelings that lead to shyness.  Sometimes an embarrassing incident that doesn’t seem too traumatic to parents can be played over in a child’s mind making shyness worse.

There is also a developmental stage in toddlers that include anxiety toward strangers or non-family members where shyness is normally expected.  In circumstances where shyness becomes a daily struggle with painful feelings or leads to a cycle of social rejection is time to address the situation.  Helping children reduce shyness can not only reduce their discomfort but open the door to a greater variety of social choices and activities as they grow.

Dealing with shyness takes time, patience, and an expectation that children will naturally resist situations that are uncomfortable to them.  First, let’s focus on the “self-concept” part of shyness, or the messages shy children often tell themselves that they are different than others in only negative ways.  As a daily strategy, find something socially themed that you can complement the child on in one-on-one conversation.  For example, point out a nice shirt or groomed hair, or the poised way a child walked across the room.  Make a point to find something else a couple of days after that, and make sure the compliment is genuine and real.

Next, shape complement giving to be more specific to shy-related behaviors.  For example, point out that you noticed how friendly he or she looked when she approached other kids in the class, or how the child helped another child.  Once a few compliments have been given, then we can tie in a suggestion for a behavior, for example, “You were really good at helping that other girl find the construction paper, maybe you could help if you see a kid on the playground that can’t think of a game to play.”

As pointed out by the American Psychological Association, it never pays to use guilt, pressure, or an angry tone to encourage social engagement with children.  Parents who are feeling very frustrated in a situation where a shy child is withdrawing from social contact should probably wait for another situation to work on the behavior directly.  Instead, it makes more sense to sit calmly near other children for awhile while strong feelings of avoidance in the shy child become less intense.

Another approach to shyness involves helping a child feel less alone and isolated in their experience.  Shyness can be brought up as a health topic in class, although count on taking five steps backward if you dare use the child you are trying to help as an example of the trait or have other children point out a child they think might be shy.  Children might feel less alone knowing some famous people who were shy, like Abraham Lincoln, Amelia Earhart, or more recently, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, and Carrie Underwood.   It isn’t hard to find statements from celebrities describing shy or challenging feelings they had growing up.

Children may need to hear positive message about their struggle to overcome shyness to reinforce what parents are telling them, here  are several books you might find helpful:

Shyness Isn’t a Minus: How to Turn Bashfulness Into a Plus

Say Goodbye to Being Shy: A Workbook to Help Kids Overcome Shyness

Overcoming Shyness and Social Phobia: A Step-by-Step Guide

Shy kids often find the happy ending to their struggle over time, so a consistent, positive, and calm approach is the best resource parents have to offer.