There’s nothing wrong with a child who is a little bit shy. As individuals, we are all unique, with our own personalities and emotions – some of us more outgoing than others. But when a child is overly anxious and inhibited, or reluctant to interact with others, shyness can become a problem. It is when it starts interfering with his or her development and quality of life that some assistance needs to be provided.
What is shyness?
It’s a good idea to analyse the word “shyness”.
According to Wikipedia: “Shyness (also called diffidence) is the feeling of apprehension, lack of comfort, or awkwardness especially when a person is in proximity to other people. This commonly occurs in new situations or with unfamiliar people. Shyness can be a characteristic of people who have low self-esteem.”
When we look at the biology of shyness, there is a lot of conjecture about the topic; however, it appears that it is more a matter of inborn temperament. According to Dr Robert Needlman, referencing Dr Benjamin Spock, “The tendency to be shy is mostly a matter of inborn temperament, not something that parenting causes or can change.” However, there are some external influences that undoubtedly have an effect on a child’s level of shyness, such as lack of socialisation, bullying or teasing, or harsh criticism.
Shyness: what’s the problem?
Many kids go through stages of shyness, with most growing out of this phase on their own. So when does shyness become a problem? Here are a few of the negatives:
- fewer friends
- fewer opportunities to practice social skills
- feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem
- elevated anxiety levels
- increased feelings of loneliness
- little to no participation in fun activities that require interacting with others, such as music, drama, sports, game playing
- embarrassing physical side-effects such as trembling hands or blushing
Above all, shyness becomes a problem when these symptoms cause an inability to move ahead developmentally. When a child cannot develop relationships with others outside the immediate family, such as teachers, other adults, school friends and neighbours, her or his development may start to lag behind.
Helping children overcome shyness
Shyness should not be treated like a disease. It’s important not to label a child as “shy” as if it is some negative affliction. If shyness is a problem, children can be encouraged to “come out of their shell” in the following ways:
- Encourage children to talk about their shyness and ask them what it is that they are wary of.
- Share your personal stories with the child, disclosing how you were once shy with certain things and, importantly, how you managed to overcome this.
- Demonstrate outgoing, happy behaviour. Children can learn by example.
- Encourage group activities where every child has a part to play, no matter how small.
- Make an effort to introduce a child to new activities and situations. For example, introduce them to a new group of children, or arrange play dates after child care.
- Reward the child if they manage to speak up or interact with the group. In addition, give the child praise if they ask for help with something or initiate a sharing situation (e.g. can I have a turn after you?).
- Reward a shy child for any activity where they excel. Praise them for any skills they have mastered. Increased self-esteem will help greatly with shyness.
- Encourage the child to speak for themselves wherever possible e.g. giving their opinion, asking for a drink of water, asking to go to the toilet.
Shyness is very common amongst children, and most grow out of it in time. If a child is excessively shy though, it’s important to provide assistance and strategies to help the child overcome their shyness. Excessively shy children may need professional help, such as counselling, social skills training or even help with relaxation techniques.
Sage Institute of Child Care – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.
Shyness – Dr Benjamin Spock, updated by Dr Robert Needlman, The Australian Parenting Website (raisingchildren.net.au/articles/shyness_what_to_do_about_it.html)
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