The image of a shy child has long been of a youngster hiding behind an adult’s legs, barely looking up and being excused for their timid behaviour.
But a growing body of research is now challenging the idea that shyness is a negative trait that will hold a child back in life.
It is true that innately shy children often come into the world with more sensitive temperaments.
Even in the womb, scientists have found that the hearts of children who turn out to be temperamentally shy tend to beat faster than those of other babies.
Between 10 to 20 percent of infants are born with these more aroused nervous systems, which can make them jumpier in new situations.
These may be the babies who are not as quick to smile at strangers and who, as they grow, are more hesitant with people they don’t know.
In these children, it’s been found that the amygdala, the brain’s antennae for threat, is more easily aroused and triggers more response.
But further research has found that far from being a problem to ‘fix’, these children tend to grow into good observers who are just slower to warm up with new people.
While these youngsters may have ‘a slower take-off’ when they meet new people, over time, they can be shown how to get used to unfamiliar situations.
Indeed, start from the position of seeing a shyer child’s qualities more positively.
Shy children often grow into thoughtful, empathetic adults who like to listen more than they talk. They also end up with just as many friends. Their friendship circle may just take a bit more time to grow.
How to nurture shy children:
Avoid the label - If a child is fearful in a new situation, don’t excuse them as ‘shy’ to others. Labelling them as such will sound like it’s a negative fixed character trait which they cannot change.
Reframe shyness - Adults will often label a child shy too, to explain away the reason they are not friendly. If you feel the need to say something, reframe it by saying this is a child who likes to take their time observing new situations first.
Tell shyer kids you understand how they feel - Rather than try and force a child out of their shell, show your understanding. You can tell them that sometimes joining in and talking to new people takes practice and in some new situations you feel shy too, but the feeling always eases after you’ve said a few words. Stress that lots of other children feel the same way, so they do not feel isolated.
Teach basic introduction skills - Shyness is only a barrier to forming friendships when a child first meets a new person. To help a child work around it, show them easy ways to look friendly - like smiling, using open body language, and introducing themselves by name.
Role play - Shy children are particularly worried about saying or doing the wrong thing. Help your child feel more confident by role-playing games with toys about meeting new people at school or going to a birthday party.
Be a good role model - Children learn social skills by watching their parents and caregivers. Mirror neurons in your child’s brain are especially adapted to help her copy what she sees. Give a good example by being friendly to new people and using manners to show your consideration for others.
Encourage a shy child to practice being sociable - Without implying there’s something wrong with being reserved, explain that being social is like a muscle. It gets stronger each time you use it.
Help them reciprocate - When meeting new people, show a child how to respond to friendly overtures by asking questions back and learning how to join in games, by showing interest, and offering to help.
“What’s My Child Thinking: Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents” is published by DK, https://amzn.to/2UdN0aG .
By Tanith Carey, author of “What’s My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents”, with Dr Angharad Rudkin.
About the author:
Tanith Carey writes books which offer a lucid analysis of the most pressing challenges facing today’s parents and childcarers – by looking at the latest research and presenting achievable strategies for how to tackle them. Her books have been translated into 15 languages, including German, French, Arabic, Chinese and Turkish. Her 2019 publications are “What’s My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents” and “The Friendship Maze: How to help your child navigate their way to positive and happier friendships”. Tanith Carey writes books which offer a lucid analysis of the most pressing challenges facing today’s parents and childcarers – by looking at the latest research and presenting achievable strategies for how to tackle them. Her books have been translated into 15 languages, including German, French, Arabic, Chinese and Turkish. Her 2019 publications are “What’s My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents” and “The Friendship Maze: How to help your child navigate their way to positive and happier friendships”.
An award-winning journalist, Tanith also writes on parenting for the Daily Telegraph, The Times, the Guardian and the Daily Mail, in which she also serialises and promotes her books. She is also a regular presence on TV and radio programmes, including the NBC Today Show in the US and Radio Four Woman’s Hour and You and Yours.
Her full bio can be found on her website at www.cliomedia.co.uk and you can follow her on social media channels @tanithcarey.