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As a parent, it can be hard to know what to do when your child is very shy.
You might bump into neighbours in the street and your child goes into their shell, unable to even look at them – you utter the words “ah, they’re just a bit shy” to knowing nods.
You might take them to the park and find them watching other children, a spark of curiosity there – but when encouraged to go and play, they physically recoil.
A survey of parents with children aged 0-3 years old found almost one third (30%) are concerned about their child’s shyness.
Over a quarter (27%) were worried about their child not being able to stand up for themselves, according to the poll by Stokke, and 25% were anxious about their child being able to make friends.
So, why are some kids shy and others not?
“Just like adults, children have different personalities and temperaments as a result of genetics and other biological factors,” says Counselling Directory member Laura Duester.
“Shy children often just have a more introverted and cautious personality than more extroverted and sociable children. However, shyness can be a response to feeling threatened, overwhelmed or frightened in certain situations.”
She offers the example that some children may fear not being able to make friends, being laughed at or being criticised, which can make them anxious and shy when socialising.
But where might this fear originate? Well, there are a few places. The first could be messages from early caregivers.
“It’s one thing to instil manners in our children, and to ask them to be quiet or polite. But some children learn to be afraid of expressing themselves,” says Sturmer.
Other factors that might play a part include a tendency to people-please, low self-esteem, and a fear of failure or ridicule which can lead to children becoming “embarrassed or afraid of trying something new.”
What can parents do to encourage a shy child?
The good news is that there’s plenty parents can be doing behind the scenes to help their child grow in confidence.
First of all, it’s helpful to explore where this shyness might be coming from.
“Are they holding themselves back because they are frightened of negative judgements?” asks Sturmer. “Or are they displaying introversion? If they are frightened of negative judgements, be curious and compassionate about what has triggered their fear.”
When you’re out with your child and they’re being shy, “don’t compare and despair,” warns psychotherapist Laura Duester. This is because when children are compared negatively to others, it can lead to reduced self-esteem and confidence, which means they’re even more likely to be shy.
“Instead of questioning why your child isn’t joining in like other children, try to focus on how you can support and encourage them instead,” she suggests.
Likewise, when you’re out and about, it’s a good idea to try role modelling. “Children learn from what we do, not what we say,” says Sturmer. “Show them that you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone and try new things.”
It’s also worth gently encouraging your child to speak about their anxieties or worries, if they’re able to verbalise them.
“Make sure to listen to and empathise with their feelings, and remind them that worries and difficulties can be overcome,” suggests Duester. You could even share some of your own experiences of facing and overcoming anxiety or challenges.
If you’ve got into the habit of only praising your child when they do something well, Sturmer recommends changing tact and praising your child for their efforts rather than for their achievements, so they’re less afraid of failing.
And as part of this, she advises parents to resist the urge to step in and help when their child tries something new. Tough, we know, but essential to help them grow and figure things out for themselves.
And lastly, it might help to set some small, achievable goals to help your child increase feelings of security and confidence in social settings.
“When a child is shy, activities can feel overwhelming so it’s best to start small and build-up from there,” says Duester.
“Achievable first steps might include things like saying ‘hello’ to someone new or joining in with an activity for five minutes. Be sure to praise your child for making progress and trying new things.”