Blog - Shyness in children by MOTHER FIT ‘Children’s Emotional Wellbeing’ Expert, Jenna Farrelly (BSc Hons) – Mother Fit
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Shyness in children by MOTHER FIT ‘Children’s Emotional Wellbeing’ Expert, Jenna Farrelly (BSc Hons)

Generally, there isn’t one definitive factor that causes shyness, it’s likely to be a combination of things

Michelle Baynham

21 Dec 2023
1. What causes shyness in children? Generally, there isn’t one definitive factor that causes shyness, it’s likely to be a combination of things. Firstly, genetics play a part- shyness can run in families. Environment and role models are important- what are they hearing/seeing and experiencing daily? Parenting style- an authoritarian style can induce shyness because it can lower a child’s self-esteem, and lastly overparenting/helicopter parenting has an impact on a child’s confidence leading to a higher incidence of shyness.

2. How do you know if your child is shy? It can be difficult to know because what may look like shyness on the surface, could be just an introverted child or a normal phase of development called separation anxiety. An introvert won’t like busy loud places, will likely tire easily after being in loud places, will choose to have smaller groups of friends, likes time alone, and doesn’t feel the need to be the loudest or most enthusiastic/boisterous child. Their needs are very different from an extroverted character, which can often look like shyness or a child lacking in confidence. However, a shy child is recognisable from the following; seeming nervous in new situations, worried about trying new things or going to new places, hiding behind parents, turning red from embarrassment easily, avoiding human interaction where possible, crying if someone asks them a question, doesn’t want to make friends or struggles to interact with other children. Please note though, this can be common behaviour in young children. You are unlikely to know if your child is truly shy until they get a bit older and these symptoms aren’t improving.

3. From what age can it start? Shyness is quite common around age 2, and generally gets better by school age. 

4. How common is shyness? I would say it’s quite difficult to know because it’s tricky to make clear definitions between shyness and introvertedness. I think a lot of introverts believe they are shy because of what people have told them over the years rather than actually being shy! My assumption would be around 4 in 10 school age children could be shy based on my experience of working with parents and children over the years.

5. What are the negatives that children can experience? Generally shy children put others first and show people pleasing behaviour. Now, in some ways, this can be seen as kindness, however if it is impacting a child’s needs from being met- then this is negative. Children that people please and struggle to show assertiveness are more at risk of burnout and high stress in later life. A shy child needs encouragement to learn to be assertive and to be able to say yes or no when they want to. There is also a risk of peer pressure in teen years due to their softer nature.

6. What’s the difference between shyness and anxiety? Depending on what research you read, some state that shyness is a form of social anxiety. I feel however, that social anxiety is more on the extreme end of shyness. For example, a shy child is unlikely to have panic attacks in a public place, but someone with social anxiety could. A shy child feels an internal feeling of “I don’t want to do that/I don’t like that” rather than debilitating “There’s absolutely no way I can do that” whilst sweating/breathing heavily etc. 

7. Should you refer to your child as shy? Yes or no? Never. Children internalise and personalise A LOT in their childhood. A child that is called shy is more likely to continue to be shy because it becomes their identity, this is called a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s the same for a ‘naughty’ child... the more they are told it the more they become it. 

8. How can you encourage them to be more confident – please give us your best tips / practical advice for young children and older kids? Confidence is linked to our self-esteem and is highly impacted by those around us. A confident child is a child that believes who they are matters, what they have to say matters, they trust themselves to cope in new situations and they know how to fix issues or face difficulties should they arise. First and foremost, a confident child comes from a supportive parenting style that is formed from something called a secure attachment. This attachment is built during infancy and involves being responsive to the child’s emotional needs, as well as providing a good balance between giving freedom to explore the world and be themselves, whilst maintaining dependable routines and boundaries. Give your child a platform to speak their mind... what do they think? What do they like? Who are they? Try to stop putting them down for small mistakes or questioning ‘why’ they are doing something: “Why did you drop that!”, “Why are you crying?!”, “Why can’t you just do as your told?”. It’s also important to focus on independence- are you doing too much for them? Are you controlling their days? Not giving them space to flourish? How often do you show that you TRUST them? Give them the opportunity to show you they can do it... positively praise them when you see they have pushed through a hard emotion- give space for all emotions and don’t shame them for their fear/nerves or anger. Confidence comes from the ability to feel all of these things, knowing they aren’t ashamed of them or should hide them. 

9. Is it better to be firm or more gentle in your approach? Gentle for sure; but also encouraging. Ideally, following your child’s needs in terms of what they enjoy is the most important- are they avoiding something due to a little anxiety, of which they may need encouraging to push through those feelings and take part or are they avoiding due to a dislike of the loud/busy environment which is an acceptable need and should be followed to ensure your child develops their own autonomy.

10. How can you help your children make friends and socialise? Start small, plan some play dates outside of school/nursery with 1 child at a time. Once they have built a good relationship with 1 friend, they’ll feel confident to meet others. You can then arrange other play dates with new friends, but I would try to build their confidence in smaller groups rather than throwing them in the deep end like a busy, loud disco and hoping for the best. When your child is meeting someone new or playing with a friend, be a role model and show them how to say hi, or how to interact in the beginning. 

11. Should you try and introduce them to new situations? How and some examples of this? Yes! But slowly. A child needs to build an internal feeling of capability. In order to feel capable, a child needs to believe that they can handle difficulties in new or unfamiliar places/situations. You need to be the role model firstly- showing them where to go and what to do. When they can see their caregiver modelling secure behaviour in new situations- they are more likely to begin feeling this within themselves. They will need lots of positive praise- avoiding shouting or forcing if they don’t get involved or if they make mistakes, if you continue to force a child to take part in something, rather than gently encouraging, they are less likely to want to try new things. It’s worth noting that if there has been anything even mildly traumatic that has occurred in a new situation (could be getting lost, feeling embarrassed, feeling alone) then it can take a shy child a long time to feel comfortable in an unfamiliar place. 

12. Are there any positives to being a shy child? Often people quite like shy children because they are well behaved! They generally care for others a lot, follow the rules, work hard and don’t cause trouble. Their quietness is usually described as having a gentle nature, which is less triggering for adults or peers than a loud, extroverted character. I often hear shy people as being described as ‘endearing’ or as having ‘humility’ which are very much deemed as positive qualities in a person.

13. How can you be supportive and encouraging? If you notice your child is scared/nervous always respond and relate to the emotion- “I can see you’re feeling nervous. Is your belly feeling a bit funny? I used to get nervous in new places too. Would you like me to sit with you until you feel ready to go and get involved?” And if they hide behind you when someone speaks to them, don’t force them to speak but get down to their level and gently say “the lady just asked you a question darling, what would you like to say back?”. Remember it is not rudeness- it’s fear. The more your child’s fear is supported and responded too appropriately- the less of a problem it will be. Make sure you show your child empathy regarding their experiences and emotions (avoiding minimising language such as “Don’t be silly!”, “Tough!” or “It’s not a big deal!”), research shows that a child who is shown empathy will develop strong social skills and emotional intelligence which are the most influential attributes when it comes to long term, stable mental health.

14. When does shyness become a problem? Shyness becomes an issue if you are noticing avoidant behaviours that last a long time- for example, refusing to go to school. Excessive anxiety, panic attacks, or really struggling to socialise are all indicators that a child needs more intense support by professionals, and this is more than just a little shyness. If you’re worried about this, you can speak to your child’s school who should put you in touch with the nursing team or you can speak to your GP.

15. Can it be exacerbated by other siblings? If so, how can you navigate this? Potentially… if the shyness is noticeable and is pointed out, or a child is being belittled or put down by their siblings then in essence, yes, there is a chance that siblings can impact this. However, usually a secure attachment with an adult, who positively impacts their self-esteem and confidence will override this. So, if you are worried about siblings impacting your shy child, focus on building your positive relationship with them and learning how to improve their self-esteem. 

16. Is it more common in middle children? There has been much research over the years that investigates whether birth order impacts children’s behaviour and development. You may have heard other parents say things like “Oh my second child is SOO a second child” or others stating, “Oh yes, he is definitely a middle child!”. But is there truth in this? Research is still ongoing! In Alfred Adler’s theory of birth order (1900’s), he suggested that middle children are actually more independent and emotionally stable... but others suggest middle children get lost because they’re not the oldest and not the youngest, so their place isn’t so ‘confirmed’. Overall, I personally believe shyness is likely to be equal across differing birth orders rather than being significantly higher in middle children.

17. Can an expert help? If so, how? Absolutely! This can either be done via the parent- for example a parenting coach, or directly with the child via counselling or therapy to increase their confidence. I highly recommend starting with the parents. This can either be really positive; knowing we can help is an empowering thing! But it can also lead us to feel pressured, so it’s important to take note of your own feelings and emotions around this issue when seeking help. Working on increasing your child’s self-esteem will hopefully help to reduce their shyness overall.

18. Where can you get help from? If you feel your child would benefit from support directly, you can find lots of information via mental health charities such as Young Minds or Mind, or via bacp.co.uk for counsellors in your local area. For parents, you can follow @wearemotherfit and @supporting_steps on Instagram for online courses and workshops that will help you to support your child’s shyness, self-esteem and confidence.

19. Any resources to know about? I highly recommend parents read ‘The Whole-Brain Child’ by Dr Dan Siegel and Dr Tina Bryson. This fascinating book will help you to uncover the whys and what’s of your child’s personality and behaviour! It’s a brilliant read.

20. Anything else to note?  The key to overcoming shyness is working on your child’s self-esteem, and if you are shy as an adult, it would be really positive for yourself and your child to seek support for this. Feeling more confident within yourself will increase your happiness as well as helping your child too. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Psychotherapy is a great way to help you combat your own shyness!