It is typical for parents to feel concerned if their child is shy; but it must be said, it is OK to be shy. Being shy is part of a person’s temperament and isn’t necessarily an indicator of low confidence or lack of self-assuredness. Each child has their own, unique disposition, and must be treated as an individual.

Shyness should be defined as separate and different from social anxiety, which is more severe and causes people to experience real fear. While the supports don't need to be wildly different it is noteworthy that, overall, shyness is milder than social anxiety. A shy person may be more reserved, or may be generally uncomfortable in social situations, but usually isn’t outright frightened of social situations.

Instead, shyness is an instinct that moves a child to resist getting close to other people who are outside of their familial comfort zone. And don't we want our children to assess if something feels safe, to own their relationship choices, and determine how they feel about something before diving into it? Yes, of course! We do ultimately want our child to engage with others and build friendships, but it needs to be genuine, and it needs to come from a feeling of security and connection. It can’t be forced, nor should it be painfully faked. 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld, a developmental psychologist that specializes in parental attachment is known for saying, “What we see is the most important determiner of what we do.” In other words, if we as parents are overly worried about our child being shy and their lack of social play, we might end up focusing on countering those behaviors with more playdates and rewarding the child’s small behaviors.

This may sound like: “Great job, I love how you said hello to her!” But, if instead we see our child’s shyness as a need for connection and comforting attachment with people they know best, like parents and siblings, as well as recognizing that it is where they are developmentally, we will respond differently. We will likely respond with more warmth, more authenticity, more understanding, and overall acceptance. Understanding your child’s need for connection will only work in your child’s favor. 

It is good to understand all the supports and therapeutic lenses available when considering how best to support your child. Sometimes a targeted behavioral approach, for a small tricky behavior that keeps popping up, may come in handy. Choosing to ignore a communication (or lack thereof) or rewarding something should only exist within a much broader, emotionally responsive, framework of support. The best and most meaningful progress will be made not by rewarding or ignoring behaviors, but by acknowledging your child's underlying need for safety, security, and attachment. 

Some ways to support your shy child might include:

  1. Find the balance between over-protection and forcing your child into something scary. You don’t want to be over-protective and shield them from the opportunities to practice being around others if they are shy. You also don’t want to force them into something that is scary for them. Know your child and find that parenting sweet spot.
  2. Practice and use role play at home. Keep it light and humorous by paying ‘greeting charades’ with large stuffed animals at snack time. Have your child pretend to do various greetings and play scenarios in the persona of their favorite tv/movie character.
  3. Name the shyness  and give them some strategies for when their feelings come up. This may sound like: “You can come over and squeeze my hand twice if this party feels like too much and we can take a break or leave.”
  4. Educate your child’s teachers and school administrators on what you’ve learned and read about shyness and what you know about your child. Listen to the school staff about their experiences supporting other shy children. Discuss with them how they plan to address the shyness and plan to keep the communication open as the school year progresses.

It’s important to continually remind yourself that your child now is not who they are necessarily going to be in the future. Just because they aren’t currently overcoming shyness doesn’t mean they will have a hard time in a group when they get older. Relieve yourself of this anxiety and be present with your child to meet their current needs.

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