How to encourage a shy child
As a parent of a toddler or young child, you quickly become acquainted with the ‘leg grab’. It’s that special move kids deploy when they’re faced with someone or something they’re uncomfortable with.
For example, you meet a friend in the street, the friend greets your child, but your child instantly gets a hold of your leg, and retreats behind it without saying a word. Or perhaps you visit a new playground, only instead of bounding ahead to enjoy the swings, your child grabs a leg and refuses to budge.
It can be a cause for concern for most parents: why does my child not want to talk to people? Why is my child not having fun like the other kids? Why is my child different?
This clingy behaviour, however, is perfectly normal and is simply a manifestation of shyness. Shyness is that feeling of awkwardness, apprehension or self-consciousness when around other people. And contrary to parents’ worries, it is nothing to get uneasy about. It is a natural, healthy emotional reaction in kids.
“Shyness may manifest in children as clinging to a parent, being reluctant to interact with others, especially people they don’t know well, being hesitant to speak, and preferring to play alone,” says Louise Shanagher, children’s therapist, mindfulness teacher and psychology lecturer. “It is certainly common and completely normal for young children to exhibit shyness, particularly in unfamiliar social situations and with adults who they don’t know. It is important to remember that shyness is a normal human emotion that we all experience from time to time.”
Look around any playground and you’ll see the same situation: some boys and girls engaging and playing with each other, others playing in pairs, and then there is the child who prefers his or her own company. So why is it that some kids are shyer than others and some not at all? Is shyness a genetic trait or is it learned?
In a recent episode of BBC’s CrowdScience, Professor of Developmental Behavioural Genetics at Kings College London, Thalia Eley, said that only about 30pc of shyness as a trait is down to genetics and the rest comes about as a response to the environment.
“We think of shyness as a temperamental trait and temperament is like a precursor to personality,” said Prof Eley. “When very young children are starting to engage with other people, you see variations in how comfortable they are in speaking to an adult they don’t know.”
She added that while the environment is almost more important for developing these sort of traits, it is genetics that drives us to extract aspects of the environment that match our actual predispositions. “For example, a shy child may be more likely to isolate themselves in a playground and watch everybody else rather than engaging. That then makes them feel more comfortable being on their own because that becomes their common experience. It’s not that it’s one or the other, it’s both genes and environment and they work together. It’s a dynamic system.”
Prof Eley also reasoned that there may be evolutionary reasons for people to develop shy personality traits. “It was useful to have people in your group who were out there exploring and engaging in new groups, but it was also useful for people who were more risk averse, more aware of threat and would do a better job protecting young offspring, for example.”
As natural as shyness is, when a child seems to be suffering as a result of holding back, the situation becomes problematic. Childhood is a time for developing social skills in preparation for adolescence and beyond. When a child fails to engage, they are missing out on developing these skills. If a shy child shows growing reluctance to interact or engage in social situations, there is something other than shyness at play.
“I think shyness can become problematic when it is coupled with ongoing anxiety,” explains Shanagher. “Experiencing a certain amount of shyness and anxiety in social situations is completely natural and normal. Some children, however, experience higher levels of anxiety alongside shyness. In some cases, this anxiety can become persistent in that it doesn’t subside in time, and these children can find it very difficult to relax in social situations.”
Shanagher highlights the symptoms parents should look for if they suspect their children’s shyness is more than the expected norm.
“Children who experience anxiety alongside shyness might complain of stomach aches and headaches in social situations – they may refuse to take part in new activities and can become very distressed, particularly in unfamiliar social situations,” she says. “If a child is experiencing ongoing anxiety and this is negatively affecting their quality of life and negatively impacting family life, then I think this is a point where I would recommend seeking professional help for your child.”
Regular shyness can be changed and treated with particular coping techniques. Parents can lovingly encourage their child to overcome their shyness with lots of support and encouragement, and there are many simple steps they can take (see panel). Shanagher (right), who has authored the Mindfully Me series of mindfulness books for children, and also co-authored Ireland’s first mindfulness curriculum for primary schools, has a particular method for helping shy or anxious children cope with their feelings.
“I always explain to children that there are no bad emotions and that all our emotions are okay to have,” she says. “I think that this is a simple but powerful message that all children need to hear. I then explain that our feelings are like visitors, they are part of us but not all of us. It can be helpful to ask children to give their shy feeling a name, like ‘Shy Cecil’ or ‘Shy Samantha’. I then explain that when Shy Cecil comes to visit, that’s okay. All our feelings are okay, but we can learn to look after ourselves and our feelings well.
“I explain to children that they can look after themselves and their feelings well by taking five mindful breaths, by putting their hand on their heart and saying to themselves, ‘It’s okay that I feel this way. Shy Cecil is visiting me now, but I will feel different soon’, and then talk about how they feel with an adult or friend, if possible. This is actually the practice of bringing mindfulness and self-compassion to our feelings, and it is something that I have taught thousands of children and adults to do, and I find it’s something that works really well.”
Shanagher also suggests that children can even make a little card with a drawing of Shy Cecil on one side, and instructions on what they can do when he comes to visit on the other side. “The key here is that children are learning to label and externalise their feeling,” she says. “This helps them know they are not ‘shy’, that they are much more than that, but in this moment, shyness is coming to visit. I have found in my work that children find this way of relating to emotions very empowering and it is something they find easy to relate to, and to practise in their lives.”
Shanagher is also keen to stress that having a shy child is something to be valued. “I think what is most important is to respect and accept children for who they are, whilst also gently challenging them and educating them on how to relate to themselves and their emotions with mindfulness and kindness.”
As Susan Cain, author of bestselling book Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, says, “Parents shouldn’t overprotect quiet children, but they should understand that these kids have a longer runway before they’re comfortable enough to take off and fly.”
What can parents do to gently encourage shy kids
● Encourage children to attend after-school activities which have an easy pace and smaller group sizes. Children’s mindfulness, yoga and art classes are all good options, says Shanagher.
● “Helping children have positive social experiences by organising play dates, family outings and visits from cousins and friends can help children build up confidence in relating to others,” she says.
● Don’t label your child as shy as that may reinforce them to remain shy in the future, but let them know that what they’re feeling is okay and you’ll be there to help them manage their feelings.
● Prepare your child before social engagements. For example, ahead of a visit to a friend’s house, talk them through who’ll be there and what they might say, and let them practise saying ‘hi’ beforehand.
● Let your child set the pace and respect their limits. While it can be frustrating for parents to see their child not getting involved, especially so for extrovert parents, don’t push your child beyond what they can handle. A timid ‘hi’ one day could be huge progress for them, so go with it.
● For toddlers, you can lead by example. Engage with other kids yourself and talk to them to show your child there’s nothing to be scared of. For example: “Oh look at your lovely bunny. What’s her name?” It’s good to talk.
● Praise social behaviour like responding to others or even when they make eye contact with someone.
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