As your child moves into the preschool and kindergarten years, behavior that seemed understandable and even expected of a toddler -- clinging to your leg when a stranger approaches, weeping over every goodbye, refusing to join in group activities -- may start to seem a bit less charming. We expect children to become more adept at social situations as they grow, so your timid child may feel more pressure to come out of his shell.
As with so many other developmental challenges, the best response is to be patient. Whether your child is truly shy or just going through the last stages of separation anxiety, he needs your support and understanding as he ventures out into our in-your-face world.
Why is my child shy?
You may have noticed your child's timid nature right from the get-go, or you may not have detected signs of shyness until your child was older and thrust more often into social situations, but researchers now believe that children are born with personality traits such as shyness intact. Shy children tend to be innately cautious and warm up to new situations more slowly than outgoing children. It's important not to think of shyness as something wrong with your child; in reality, shy people are perfectly well-adjusted. Still, how you nurture him at this age can make a big difference in how he feels about himself and in how his personality changes and grows. Rather than striving to change your child, gently prepare him for any situation he's likely to find difficult.
When an outgoing parent has a timid child it can be hard on both of them. If you're having a hard time understanding your child's approach to the world because it's so different from yours, consider going to a parenting workshop on temperament led by a counselor or other specialist. Parents are often comforted to learn that there are lots of children out there like their child, and lots of parents struggling to better understand them.
How can I prepare my shy child for school?
If your child will soon head off to preschool or kindergarten and hasn't been part of a group before, a little advance work will help pave the way. Most children feel apprehensive before starting a new school, but a shy child may find it excruciating. Here are a few suggestions:
- Sign your child up with a friend. Starting school with at least one familiar face can make all the difference.
- Take your child for a classroom tour. He'll be more relaxed if he gets a peek at his classroom and teacher before school actually starts. Having a picture of the place and person in his head may reassure him.
- Have your child practice talking to other children and adults. You can make a game of it: Ask your child to be the tour guide when close friends or relatives visit your home. Or encourage him to place his own order at a restaurant. He'll not only become comfortable with other people but also begin to understand the give-and-take of conversation and how loudly and clearly he needs to speak to be understood. If he tends to whisper or mumble, he's probably frustrated with not being understood.
- Introduce your child to crowds. Your child will be less intimidated by a raucous classroom or hectic cafeteria if he's been exposed to noisy situations that are fun. Take him to a puppet show, a community swimming pool, a county fair, or any other place where he can see that a rollicking throng is not necessarily a bad thing.
- Create a goodbye ritual. Never sneak away when you leave your child at school. Say goodbye and remind your child that you'll be back. Arrive a little early at pickup time so that he doesn't get anxious looking around for you.
How can I help my shy child make friends?
Your child will probably do best if he's introduced to one potential friend at a time and if that child is also a bit shy or has a similarly low-key personality. This way the two children will get off on an equal footing. Don't expect much at the first meeting; it may take several short get-togethers before both children are comfortable. If your child can form an attachment with one child, he'll learn more about how to handle himself socially, and his friend will help him enter a larger group when the time comes. He may also do well playing with children of different ages; An older child can take the lead and break the ice, while a younger child may look up to your child, boosting his confidence.
If your child is about to begin preschool or kindergarten and doesn't know anyone in his class, ask a teacher or school administrator for a few names of fellow students and try to set up a play date with one or two of them before school starts. If any neighborhood kids are in your child's age range, find out if they will be attending the same school and introduce them or invite them over.
Is it bad for my child to be labeled "shy"?
It's rarely beneficial for a child to have a label attached to him, whether it's one that pressures with high expectations (gifted, for instance), or one that excuses unsociable behavior ("Oh, he's just shy").
Even a child of preschool age will listen up if he hears his parents or anyone else calling him "shy." He may not think of himself that way, but if he starts hearing it often enough he'll certainly believe it's true. He may not have thought that being shy was such a big deal but the negative connotation he hears will send him the message that he has some sort of affliction that can't be fixed.
If your child has been labeled shy, you can help alter his self-image by arranging for him to overhear something positive. When he's in earshot, you might discuss how friendly he has become or exclaim over some effort he made to be social. Encourage relatives, family friends, and teachers to avoid labeling and instead look at your child as a whole person. Yes, he may be less than outgoing, but that doesn't begin to capture his whole personality.
My child is so shy, could something be wrong with him?
In the preschool and kindergarten years, most children are still catching on to how to interact in a variety of social situations. Many will be bashful with new people and in new places. Eventually they'll start to feel comfortable and make friends.
Even when your child is young, friendships are an important part of his development and are a good barometer of how he's doing. If he always seems to be alone, talk to his babysitter or teacher; it may be that you don't see those moments when he's happily interacting. If they agree, however, that your child is having more trouble socializing than most kids his age, talk to your pediatrician. She may suggest a specialist or therapist.
In most cases, however, there's nothing to worry about -- even excessive shyness usually doesn't signal an underlying problem. The best thing the parent of a shy child can do is avoid becoming anxious and overprotective. If you give him enough time, he'll find his own way to join the social whirl.
For more information on shyness and other worrisome behavior in adolescents, contact:
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
The American Counseling Association
Free Spirit Publishing
Free Spirit Publishing is a publisher of nonfiction self-help resources for kids, teachers, and parents. The site includes questions by kids and answers by experts about issues such as privacy, teasing, and dealing with bullies.
John Gottman, Joan Declaire, and Daniel Goleman. Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting. 1997. Simon & Schuster.
Daniel Goleman. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. 1998. Bantam Books.
Brazelton, T. Berry, MD, and Joshua D. Sparrow, MD. Touchpoints Birth to Three: Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development. 2006. Da Capo Press.