Most children are shy in certain situations, but some struggle more than others in dealing with social interaction. However, shyness is not always cause for concern.
“I think people sometimes see shyness as a negative thing, but that’s not necessarily true,” said Dr. Stephanie Kohlbeck, a child psychologist at Marshfield Clinic. “It’s just sometimes how a child is. It’s who they are.”
What causes shyness?
Like many behavioral traits, shyness results from a combination of DNA and environmental factors.
“Parents model for their child how to act in social situations and how to interact with the world,” Kohlbeck said. “Shyness could also stem from a child having insecure attachments early in life.”
A child could develop shyness as a self-defense behavior in response to being bullied or teased, Kohlbeck said. She said the stigma about being shy could actually make shyness worse.
“If a child thinks, ‘I’m so shy, there’s something wrong with me,’ they may withdraw even more from social situations,” Kohlbeck said. “Parents need to be supportive and make it clear to the child there is nothing wrong with being shy.”
It’s normal to be shy to an extent
Very young children will hide behind their parents when they meet a new person, and kids and adults alike are nervous when speaking in front of groups. Shyness is to be expected in these situations, Kohlbeck said.
“I think all of us have a degree of that social shyness, and it’s very appropriate,” Kohlbeck said.
Willing vs. unwilling shyness
Some children are naturally introverts and prefer to spend a weekend night at home instead of with friends. There is nothing wrong with a child who likes alone time. Shyness is a problem for the child who wishes to be out interacting with friends but can’t overcome his or her nervousness and stays away from social situations.
“I don’t think we should naturally assume a child should be more social,” Kohlbeck said. “If a child is reporting loneliness, wanting to be with his or her peers, being distressed by the shyness, that could be a red flag where the child needs help.”
How parents can help
Parents can help shy children by setting up social situations for them, like play groups. When setting up social scenarios, parents should initially plan to be present, so they can act as a safety net for their child and help them if they become uncomfortable.
The upside of being shy
Kohlbeck said shy children tend to be better listeners than their extroverted peers. Because they observe more than they talk, shy kids also may be more perceptive than their peers.
“Shy kids are generally well liked by their peers and adults,” Kohlbeck said. “Maybe they’re a little more in tune to what their friends like and don’t like.”
Being shy might even help kids excel in school because they aren’t looking to interact with other kids during class.