Children and shyness

Children and shyness
How to help your shy child 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 not initiate play with other children 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 some children shy?

True shyness usually starts to emerge around age 2 or 3. This is when children start to develop a sense of self, become aware of what others think, and see the effect they have on others. Kids tend to become less shy once they start elementary school.

Shyness can be linked to a child’s temperament, which informs how they react and adapt to various situations, manage their emotions, and interact with others. Some children are more insecure and sensitive to novelty from birth. They need more time to warm up to new situations. For example, it may take time for a shy child to feel comfortable with new people.

Parental behaviour can also cause or intensify shyness in children. For instance, 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 more shy as a result.

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 children at daycare or school may become insecure or increasingly uncomfortable around other people.

What shy children are afraid of

When children are shy, their sense of insecurity leads them to have all sorts of fears. They’re scared of the unknown, new situations, and strangers. They tend to view novelty as a threat, and have thoughts like: “What will happen to me if I talk to this stranger? Will she try 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 will recess be like? Will I be able to play like the other kids?”

Helping a shy child

If your child is shy, they need to develop their self-confidence and sense of security. By modeling a positive attitude, you can help them become less fearful of the unknown and ease their feelings of insecurity. Here’s what you can do to help them overcome their shyness.

The most important thing is that your child learns to live with their shyness and that it doesn’t keep them from having great experiences or meeting their needs.
  • Talk to your child to find out what they are afraid of. This will help you reassure them and find ways to help them face their fear. Explain that they’re not alone in feeling this way.
  • Be supportive of your child to help them gain confidence. Your child needs to know that what they want, think, and feel is important to you. 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 decide what to wear, what books to read before bedtime, or what game to play as a 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 help them feel interesting. Feeling loved and appreciated helps children overcome their shyness.
  • Help your child interact with other children by inviting a friend over for a playdate. Because your child is at home, they will likely feel more at ease. Play with the kids for a little while at the beginning of the playdate, then leave them to play by themselves while expressing your confidence in them. (e.g., “I’m glad to see you’re having so much fun together. Keep it up!”) Before age 3, children play in parallel, that is, side-by-side in the same room, but with different games or toys. If your toddler is under the age of 3 and can play alongside other children, that’s great!
  • Plan activities with another family who has a child the same age as yours, like going to the pool or the zoo. This will help your child get used to being around others, approach them at their own pace, and get reassurance from you as needed, all while having fun. You’ll also be able to provide support and encouragement.
  • At the park, show your child how to join a group. Try saying “I have a feeling you’d like to go play with those kids making sandcastles. Why don’t we ask if we can build one with them?”
  • Praise your child when they are able to overcome their shyness. If they continue to struggle with approaching others, this could lead to isolation.
  • Prepare your child before visiting family or friends. Explain who will be there and what will happen. If this is your second visit, quickly remind them of how things went last time (e.g., who was there or what you did) so they have an idea of what to expect this time. Once there, let them hang back and observe. If they’re still withdrawn or quiet after a little while, let them take things at their own pace and praise their efforts to overcome their shyness, however small (e.g., a smile, a wave, or a quick glance). When you acknowledge their efforts, their fear of meeting new people will begin to subside.
  • Provide positive experiences for your child. The more capable they feel, the better they’ll feel about themself. They will also gain confidence and become more comfortable reaching out to others. For example, when you go to the playground, let them explore their limits on their own, 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 will increase.
  • Encourage your child to engage in pretend play, such as playing grocery store, restaurant, or school. Role-playing games can help them learn how to relate to others. When you play these games with your child, you’re providing examples of what to say and how to behave in a variety of everyday situations.
  • Play board games with your child. These games help them learn 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.

The bright side of shyness

Because shy children are observant and good listeners, they tend to develop a strong sense of empathy as they get older. They can easily decode other peoples’ emotions and feelings. Thanks to their discretion and sensitivity, they often become a confidant to their friends. They also have an easier time accepting themselves for who they are and are comfortable spending time alone.

Behaviours to avoid

The best way to support a shy child is by helping them feel safe and secure, not trying to change who they are.
  • Don’t be overprotective. When parents are overprotective, their shy children may become passive and overdependent on the adults in their life. If you shelter your child by stepping in to do things for them all the time, you’re sending the message that they’re not capable of doing those things on their own. They may also pick up on your anxiety and start being afraid to do things by themself (e.g., “The world is a scary place and I need you to protect me.”). As a result, they may develop the belief that they’re not up to a task or that the world around them is dangerous.
  • Don’t keep your child from situations where they may feel shy. They will learn to overcome their shyness through exposure. If they aren’t given the opportunity to socialize or if they self-isolate, they are more likely to develop anxiety or a social phobia as they get older.
  • Don’t tell your child that they’re shy. If they hear this over and over, they’ll eventually think of themself as “the shy kid” and view their shyness as something that can’t be changed. But with a little help and a few positive experiences, your child may gain confidence, be more comfortable around others, and feel less shy. Instead of focusing on their shyness, accept your child as they are.
  • Avoid telling embarrassing stories about your child while they’re in earshot (e.g., that time they missed the toilet when using a public restroom). Even if people are only laughing at the incident itself, your child may think they’re the one being laughed at, which will damage their self-esteem. Accusing your child of lying in front of others or ridiculing them in public will also impact their self-esteem and can exacerbate their shyness.
Petit garçon au parc qui refuse de faire ce que sa mère lui demande
  • Don’t force your child to interact with others before they’re ready. For example, don’t make them play with other kids, talk to someone they don’t know, or give their aunt a kiss if they don’t want to. Forcing these situations may make them even less willing to reach out to others. It’s better to let them get comfortable at their own pace and interact with others when they’re ready.
  • Don’t set your child up for failure. If your child is uncomfortable in group settings, don’t sign them up for group activities where they’ll have to interact with other children and an instructor on their own. Their fear of new situations and the unknown may cause them to refuse to participate, throw a tantrum to avoid going, or drop out. Instead, opt for parent-child activities (e.g., swimming, gymnastics, yoga, karate) or activities where parents are allowed to stay nearby. Having you around will help your child develop their confidence and get used to the new environment.

Shy parents

A child with a shy parent 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 talk to those girls in the sandbox—you might bother them.”
Even if you yourself are shy, you can help your child develop confidence by using the tips listed above. You can also ask for support from your partner or family to help your child connect with others. For instance, you could have your partner go to parent-child karate classes in your place, or ask your mother to take your child to story time at the library.
If you want to overcome your shyness, you can get help from your CLSC or from a psychologist.

Things to keep in mind

  • Shyness can be linked to a child’s temperament, their parents’ attitudes, and their own experiences.
  • Shy children need time to gain confidence and a sense of security.
  • You can help your child feel more comfortable around others by building their confidence, preparing them before visiting people, and playing role-playing games.
Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Annie Goulet, psychologist
Copywriting and editing: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: April 2024

Photo: iStock/NiDerLander and Gettyimages/RoBeDeRo

Sources and references

For parents

  • Néel, Sophie. La communication positive parents-enfants: une méthode douce et ludique pour aider votre enfant à dépasser ses peurs, cauchemars, émotions négatives, timidité…. Paris, Éditions Josette Lyon, 2016, 196 pp.

For kids

  • Belle, Élaine. C’est OK d’être timide : le livre précurseur sur l’acceptation de la timidité comme une qualité chez l’enfant. 2023, 28 pp. (3 years and up)
  • Couture, Nathalie, and Geneviève Marcotte. Super Moi surmonte sa timidité. Quebec City, Éditions Midi trente, 2015, 48 pp. (6 years and up)
  • Dolto, Catherine, and Colline Faure-Poirée. La timidité. Paris, Éditions Gallimard Jeunesse, 2020, 26 pp. (2 years and up)
  • Jasmin, Emmanuelle. La timidité racontée aux enfants. Boucherville, Éditions de Mortagne, 2022, 48 pp. (6 years and up)
  • Simpson, Emma. Clara and the Birds. Milky Way Picture Books, 2024, 52 pp. (4 years and up)