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Parenting Press: Shyness in Young Children

Tip—A shy child needs a lot of time to watch and practice new things in his head before he’s ready to try them.

Have you ever heard an outgoing adult say, “I was very shy as a child”? This can be a startling statement from an extroverted person. It isn’t always shyness he or she is referring to.

All children go through phases where separation is difficult—a well-known time is between 12 and 18 months when a toddler will react to a babysitter by burying his or her face into Mom’s body. It isn’t necessarily shyness as a personality trait, but rather a coping mechanism for dealing with separation. It’s more developmental rather than temperament-based behavior.

Parent educators Helen Neville and Diane Clark Johnson discuss some of the temperament traits that fuel shy behavior in their helpful book, Temperament Tools: Working with Your Child’s Inborn Traits (Rev. Ed.). They point out that being low in energy can often cause shy behavior in children. “When a child is low in energy, she doesn’t jump into active games with the other children. She looks carefully for friends who will help her when she needs it and not make fun of her. She makes good friends. It just takes her a while to find them.”

When you are aware of development and the characteristics of your child, you are less apt to label your child as shy.

Tools—So then, when is a child really and truly shy? Neville and Johnson point to a combination of traits that often produce a shy child: low in approach and high in sensitivity. If intensity is also present in this child, then you’re likely to see a lot of shy behavior. This child is naturally cautious and sensitive. Because he feels emotions intensely, when he feels cautious, he feels extremely cautious. Being very sensitive to stimulation heightens the caution. This child only ventures out when conditions are exactly right. No amount of coaxing or yelling will induce him to do so before he is ready. If he is pushed into a new situation, he experiences so much adrenaline that he tends to freeze up.

Neville and Clark offer some ideas for guiding a shy child:

  • Give your child time to watch and practice new situations in her head before she tries them out. Don’t push your child into something before she’s ready, but also don’t assume a “No” will always remain a “No.” This child needs a lot of practice in her head before she becomes comfortable and confident.
  • Divide new tasks into small steps. If your child is afraid to try the playground slide, let her practice in gradual steps: Watch the other kids. Practice going up and down the ladder. Go down the slide with a parent. Go down the slide alone.
  • Offer relaxed companionship for new tasks and situations. Your presence will be reassuring as your child tries out a new task.

Also of use to parents of children ages 1–3 is the rhyming board book, When You’re Shy and You Know It. This book offers the very youngest children a few simple coping techniques for the highly cautious.


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