Working With Shy Children

Many great leaders in history are known to have been inherently shy individuals.


Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi for example, both described by their contemporaries as being ’shy’, nonetheless epitomised the power behind the meaning of the phrase ‘actions speak louder than words’. Some of the globes most successful leaders of industry today appear extrovert in personality because of what they have achieved or through their adventurous activities, but were in fact acutely shy when young – the softly spoken Sir Richard Branson to name just one. It is important to understand therefore, that shyness is not a weakness and need no determine the future prospects of a child who is shy.

Most children exhibit nervous or timid behaviour at various stages in their development. Meeting new adults such as teachers, dentists and doctors, starting a new school, or entering a room full of people, even if they are known relatives, can be daunting at the best of times! Young children are bombarded with a relentless host of new experiences which can be challenging and sometimes painful, as they learn to understand and manage their emotions – developmental stages that can be concerning for parents too! It is important to remember however, and hopefully take comfort from, the fact that shyness is a common character trait that most children do grow out of over time.

How being shy can affect a child.

There are many reasons why a child might be shy with many levels of shyness on the spectrum. Extreme or chronic shyness may be exhibited as a severe anxiety disorder and could be an indication of an underlying trauma deep-rooted fear or apprehension of a recurring situation that persistently knocks a child’s confidence. If you feel this describes your child, it is advisable to consult a health care professional who will help the whole family understand the root of the problem and offer suitable, long term solutions.

The quiet and softly spoken child is unlikely to fear social encounters though they may quickly be overwhelmed. This introvert personality type may appear very shy but usually possesses a healthy concept of self. They tend to listen attentively, absorbing the information they hear and carefully considering their responses. They may feel and remain perfectly calm within their group of friends even though they choose not to voice their thoughts, feelings or opinions. An overtly shy child is unlikely to make the first move to talk to a peer when in a group situation however, and is likely to feel ill at ease and unsure, even fearful. These children usually find it difficult to make friends and build relationships.

Equally, children may be softly spoken and timid because they are not equipped with the tools necessary to communicate effectively. They may have a weak speaking voice, limited vocabulary or the inability to express their feelings. They may feel overwhelmed by the choices confronting them in a large school or lack the ability to solve problems easily.

The child who is so painfully shy that they cannot make eye contact and who retreats from new situations at all costs is most likely suffering from low self-esteem. Severe shyness can be disabling and most definitely places the child at a disadvantage compared to peers who are naturally extrovert. This child especially requires lots of understanding, recognition and nurturing.

The more safe, secure and loved a child feels, the more likely they are to adapt to change and new situations, to build confidence and consequently reap the benefits of increased self-esteem.

As a parent, you know your child best. As a starting point, establish the severity of your child’s shyness. Is it an intrinsic characteristic that does not appear to distress them? Does it debilitate them to such a degree that it seriously inhibits every day functions? Is it a pattern of behaviour you feel confident your child will overcome as they warm up to different situations? Or do you feel it is a characteristic, which if not nipped in the bud at an early stage, might affect their interpersonal, social and / or academic wellbeing?

Statistically, according to Karen Payne (PhD) in her article Overcoming and Understanding Shyness for the Caltec Counseling Center, USA, more and more children and young people today (even adults) are demonstrating introverted characteristics and traits of shyness. Doctor Payne categorises several levels of shyness. For example, ‘shy extroverts’ accounts for 80% of people who have reported feeling shy at some point in their lives. Those suffering from a chronic form of shyness, she refers to as suffering from ‘social phobia’. Payne continues, “All of these statistics demonstrate that the number of people suffering from some form of shyness and/or social isolation and avoidance based on fear is very high, certainly deserving of attention and treatment.” According to Payne and many other commentators today, two factors that contribute to this are the rise of non-human forms of communication (social media, chat apps – in short, the electronic technology revolution) and the automation of the service industry (ATMs for example). People no longer have to deal face to face with other people and as a result, we are losing our interpersonal skills. More worryingly, increasing numbers of children are growing up without these skills in the first place!

The more isolated our children become, the more likely they are to disengage with others and lack the confidence to deal with new situations. A sense of self-confidence is one of the greatest gifts parents can give their children.  A child who grows up believing they can succeed, that it is all right to fail and try again, is more likely to face challenges head on than the child who lacks self-belief or who embodies an innate distrust of their world. That is why it is so important to celebrate your child’s each and every milestone, no matter how small. If your child truly believes that you have confidence in them, and accept them for who they are, regardless of achievement or idiosyncrasies, then before long, they will begin to believe it too. When a truly positive belief sets in, then a change in behaviour comes about.

Ways to enhance your child’s social and linguistic confidence

Here are some ways to enhance your child’s social and linguistic confidence:

  • Give lots of hugs, reassurance, encouragement and loving support.
  • Limit and monitor the use of mobile phones, laptops and iPads. We may not be able to stem ‘the rise of the machines’ but we can be aware of how much time our children spend using them! Instead, read and enjoy stories together regularly. Let your child listen to you reading out loud and encourage your child to read to you. Talk to your child, ask open-ended questions and make the time to listen to their replies.
  • Enroll your child in a quality speech and drama programme that encourages interpersonal development and group
  • Role-play scenarios your child is likely to encounter in new situations such as starting a new school. This encourages social skills and language use.  Provide them with simple phrases such as “thank you”. This helps them respond to others while eliciting a positive response in turn. Talk to your child about the importance of maintaining eye contact during conversation.
  • Expose your child to different social occasions and outings to new places.  The more varied your child’s experiences are, the less anxious they will feel when having to deal with a new situation without you.
  • Arrange and exchange play dates with your child’s classmates. This allows children to get to know each other and forge
    friendships in the comfort of their own homes.
  • Be consistent in developing routines. Routines help children to predict what happens next, providing them with a sense of security.  Consistency in your behaviour and reactions is equally important in developing a confident child. If you are erratic and your reactions often depend on your emotional or physical state then children will take a longer time to develop confidence in what is expected of them and how their behaviour will be received.
  • Encourage and praise your child constantly, concentrating on their efforts. The greatest confidence is nurtured when your child knows that you listen to them, understand them and love them.

To conclude, commonplace shyness in children is not a weakness but a character trait that given time and the chance to adapt, most children will move on from as they mature.  As a parent, if you are concerned that your child’s shyness is setting them back, start to gently coax them into situations that enable them to cope AND feel good about themselves.

Author: Fiona Walker

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Fiona Walker Fiona Walker is the Principal of Schools / CEO of Julia Gabriel Education. She holds a Masters in Early Childhood Education and is a qualified Montessori teacher with more than 20 years of experience in providing quality education for young children.

1 comment on “Working With Shy Children

  1. / Reply

    This is a great article and I want to thank you, Fiona, for reframing shyness in a way that's easily understood and compassionate. I think you've hit the nail on the head when you point out the various kinds of shyness, because parents really need to know the difference between a child who's in danger of shutting down and one who will probably grow out of it quite easily.

    I love the tips for coping with shyness, too. It's really easy to get irritated with a shy child, especially when you're in a hurry, and I think it's because we grownups often forget what it feels like to be a child.

    Bravo! I'm looking for more from you.


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