Is your child shy? How can you help them feel more comfortable around others?
You can recognize shy children by their behaviour. They’re generally not comfortable in social situations. For example, they might find it difficult to initiate play with other kids their age. They may also cling to their parents, not respond when spoken to by someone they don’t know or don’t know well, and lower their eyes to avoid eye contact with others.
Why are children shy?
It’s generally around the age of 2 or 3 that true shyness begins to emerge. Children at this age start to develop a sense of self, become aware of what others think, and see the effect they have on others. Here are some of the causes of shyness in children.
- Shyness may just be part of your little one’s temperament. A child’s temperament determines how they react, adapt to various situations, manage their emotions, and interact with others. Some children show more insecurity and are more sensitive to novelty from birth. They need more time to warm up to a new situation. For example, it may take time for a shy child to feel comfortable with new people, such as their parents’ friends.
- How parents react can also influence or increase their child’s shyness. Parents who use fear to get their child to obey or who often criticize their child may cause them to feel insecure. The child may lose confidence and become even more shy.
- Your child’s personal experiences are also an important influence. For example, a child who is often labelled as shy or who is bullied by other children at daycare may become insecure or increasingly shy around people.
When children are shy, their sense of insecurity leads them to have all sorts of fears. They may be afraid of the unknown, new situations, or strangers. They tend to view novelty as a threat and ask themselves questions like the following: “What will happen to me if I talk to this unknown person? Will she want to take me away?” “Will this girl be nice to me if I play with her? What do I do if she’s mean?” “What’s daycare going to be like? Will I be able to play like the other children?”
Helping a shy child
Shy children need time to develop their confidence and sense of security. By modeling a positive attitude, you can help your child become less fearful of the unknown and ease their feelings of insecurity. Here’s what you can do to help them overcome their shyness.
For your child to gain confidence, they need to feel that you accept them and that what they want, think, and feel is important to you. Encourage them and let them make choices that give them the opportunity to express their tastes. These simple decisions will help build their confidence. For example, let your child choose their own clothes, what books to read before bedtime, or what game to play with the family.
Take an interest in what they do. For example, when they are drawing or making a craft, ask them about their creation. This will develop their ability to express themself and make them feel they’re interesting. Feeling loved and appreciated helps children overcome their shyness.
Help your child interact with other children
A few ideas to help shy children fit in (video in French).
If your child has difficulty reaching out to other children, invite a friend over for a playdate. Your child will feel more comfortable in familiar surroundings. Start by playing with the children, and after a while, move away while expressing your confidence in them. For example, you could say, “I’m glad to see you’re having so much fun together. Keep it up!”
It’s important to remember that before the age of 3, children engage in parallel play, meaning they’ll play alongside other children, but not with them. So, if your child is able to play next to other children at this age, it’s a good sign!
At the park, show your child how to join a group. For example, you could say, “I have a feeling you’d like to go play with the kids making sandcastles. Why don’t we ask them if we can build one with them?”
If your child constantly has difficulty connecting with others, they may become isolated. Praise their efforts to overcome their shyness.
Prepare your child before visiting people
To make your child feel safe before you visit a friend or relative, prepare them by telling them who will be there and how the evening will go. If this is your second visit, give a quick recap of the first one (e.g., who was there the previous time, what you did). This will help them feel more comfortable because the situation will seem less new.
Supporting a shy child means helping to allay their uneasiness, not trying to change who they are.
Once there, give them time to observe how things are going. If they remain aloof or quiet during the visit, simply allow them to go at their own pace and praise their efforts, even if they were discreet (e.g., they only gave a smile, a wave, or a quick glance).
When you acknowledge their efforts in this way, without insisting on more, their fear of meeting other people outside the comfort of their own home will begin to dwindle.
Provide positive experiences for your child
The more your child feels able to do things, the better they feel about themself. This helps them gain confidence and become more comfortable reaching out to others. For example, when you go to the park playground, let them explore their own limits, and step in only when they need you. When you give your child frequent opportunities to take on small challenges, their confidence and self-esteem grow.
Encourage role-playing and board games
Role-playing games, such as pretending to be at the grocery store, at a restaurant, or in school, teach your youngster how to relate to others. When you play with your child, you are providing examples of what they can say or how they can react in a variety of everyday situations.
Board games also teach children how to interact with others. From game to game, your child will learn to assert themself, listen to others, follow rules, and manage their emotions when they experience frustrations.
Behaviours to avoid
Try not to be overprotective.
When parents are overprotective, their shy children may also become passive and come to depend too much on the adults in their life. For example, a child might refuse do anything without their parent present, either because they’re afraid of displeasing that parent or because the parent has communicated their own fears to their child.
When you overprotect your child by taking over, you’re sending the message that they are not able to do things on their own (e.g., “I’m doing it for you because you don’t have the skills to pull it off.”). The child may also sense the adult’s apprehension and be afraid to do things on their own (e.g., “The world is so threatening that I need you to be there to face it.”). Consequently, the child may develop the belief that they are not up to a task or that the world around them is dangerous.
Don’t criticize them for being shy
Avoid labeling your child as shy. If a child is repeatedly labeled as shy, they will come to define themself as shy and believe they can’t do anything about it. But with a little help and a few positive experiences, your child may gain confidence, be more comfortable around others, and feel less shy.
Never humiliate your child
Avoid telling others about embarrassing or humiliating situations your child has experienced when they’re in earshot (e.g., that your child missed the toilet when peeing in a public restroom). Even if people are only laughing at the incident itself, your child may think they’re the one being laughed at. This kind of situation damages their self-esteem. Furthermore, avoid ridiculing your child or telling them they’re lying in front of others. This also undermines their self-esteem and can increase their shyness.
Don’t force them to engage with others
It’s best not to force your child to interact with others if they’re not ready. For example, don’t make them play with children or speak with someone they don’t know if they don’t want to. It will only make them more reluctant to reach out to others. It’s better to let them get used to situations at their own pace and interact with others when they’re ready.
The same thing goes for hugs and kisses. Don’t force your child to greet people with a kiss on the cheek if they don’t want to. Instead, ask their grandparents along with other friends and family members to simply greet your child warmly. They can say hello to your child without touching them and speak gently without expecting a response. With time, your child will become increasingly relaxed around them.
Avoid setting your child up for failure
If your child is not comfortable in group settings, don’t sign them up for group activities where they will have to deal with other children and an instructor on their own. As shy children dread novelty and meeting new people, this may only make them panic. They’ll likely refuse to participate in the activity or throw a tantrum to avoid going. In the end, they may drop out of the activity and see that as a failure.
To introduce a shy child to a group activity, consider looking for parent-child activities (e.g., swimming, gymnastics, yoga, karate). Accompanying your child will help them develop confidence and learn to cope with new environments. In addition, try to find activities where parents are allowed to stay nearby. For example, at soccer practice, you could take part in warm-up and then gradually move away for the rest of the activity.
A child whose parent is shy is more likely to be shy themself, because parents are role models to their children. If a child sees that their parent is uncomfortable in public, they may also become uneasy. A shy parent can also unintentionally stand in the way of their child spontaneously reaching out to others. For example, they might say: “Don’t go in the sandbox to say hello to those girls—you might disturb them.”
Even if you yourself are shy, you can help your child develop confidence by using the tips mentioned above. You can also ask for support from your partner or family to help your child connect with others. Let your partner participate in the parent-child karate class, or ask your mother to take your child to story time at the library. If you would like to conquer your shyness, you can get help from your CLSC or from a psychologist.
Things to keep in mind
Shyness can be the result of a child’s temperament, their parents’ attitudes, and their own experiences.
Shy children need time to gain confidence and a sense of reassurance.
You can help your child feel more comfortable around others by building their confidence, preparing them before visiting people, and practising role-play.
Scientific review: Annie Goulet, psychologist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: June 2018
Photos: iStock/NiDerLander and Gettyimages/RoBeDeRo
Néel, Sophie. La communication positive parents-enfants: une méthode douce et ludique pour aider votre enfant à dépasser ses peurs, cauchemars, émotions négatives, timidité… Éditions Josette Lyon, 2016, 196 pp.
Couture, Nathalie, and Geneviève Marcotte. Super Moi surmonte sa timidité. Quebec City, Éditions Midi trente, 2015, 48 pp.
Dolto, Catherine. La timidité. Éditions Gallimard jeunesse, 2020, 28 pp.