by John Malouff, Ph.D., J.D.
Senior Lecturer in Psychology
Shyness involves anxiety and behavioral inhibition in social situations (Leary, 1986). It occurs most frequently in situations that are novel or suggest evaluation of the person or situations where the person is conspicuous or others are intrusive (Buss, 1986; Crozier, 2001). Although all children may experience shyness sometimes, some children experience shyness to a debilitating degree. This document is about those children.Young shy children often show an apparent eagerness to observe others combined with a reluctance to speak to or join the others (Asendorpf, 1993). For example, shy children may remain silent around unfamiliar others, even when spoken to. Shy children may refuse to enter a new setting such as a classroom without being accompanied by a parent. Shy children may refuse to participate in athletic or dance activities, they may look only at the ground when around unfamiliar individuals, and they may go to great lengths to avoid calling attention to themselves ("Don't whistle, dad; people will look at us").Shy children want to interact with unfamiliar others but don't because of their fear. A different problem exists when a child simply prefers to be alone (Asendorpf, 1993). These loner children, who are rare, show little or no interest in observing others and little or no excitement when approached by others.
The causes of shyness have not been demonstrated adequately to justify any firm statements on the issue. However, shyness experts identify as possible causes (a) genes predisposing a person to shyness, (b) a less than firm attachment bond between parent and child, (c) poor acquisition of social skills, or (d) parents, siblings, or others harshly and frequently teasing or criticizing a child (Asendorpf, 1993; Sanson, Pedlam, Cann, Prior, & Oberklaid, 1996).
Shy children tend to engage in significantly less social misbehavior than other children (Sanson et al., 1996). This may occur because shy children care so much about what others think of them.
Shyness experts vary in their views about whether childhood shyness leads to mental health problems later. However, the practical and emotional problems caused by shyness are apparent. As a practical matter, shy children obtain less practice of social skills and develop fewer friends. They tend to avoid activities, such as sports, drama, and debate, that would put them in the limelight. Shy children tend to be perceived as shy, unfriendly, and untalented, and they tend to feel lonely and have low self-esteem (Jones & Carpenter, 1986) and a higher than average level of gastrointestinal problems (Chung & Evans, 2000). Shy children tend to become anxious teens (Prior, Smart, Sanson, & Oberklaid, 2000). Shy adults tend to have smaller social networks and to feel less satisfied than others with their social support networks (Jones & Carpenter, 1986). I have known shy college students who never graduate because they fear taking a required public speaking class.Many shy individuals think of their shyness as a significant problem that hinders them in myriad ways (Zimbardo, 1986). Fortunately, some individuals act less shy as they become older (Zimbardo, 1986). However, even these individuals may regret their prior shyness, thinking sadly of the social opportunities they missed.
There are many strategies that can be used to help children overcome shyness. Some strategies may be more effective with some children than with others. Some children may benefit substantially from regular application of a few of the strategies listed below. Other children may need many more strategies applied. I suggest trying as many strategies as possible for at least a month and continuing with those that seem promising with a particular child. Many of the strategies are worth continuing indefinitely because they are just principles of good parenting.The strategies below are listed in order of logical application. After an explanation of the strategy, you will see a section labeled "Our Application." In that section I will describe how my wife, Nicola Schutte, Ph.D., and I applied the strategy to my four-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. For the full story of Elizabeth and how she overcame shyness with our help, see Elizabeth.
Once shy children start feeling bad about being shy, they may enter a downward spiral of becoming less and less confident and having lower and lower self-esteem. Parents can help counter this unfortunate effect of shyness by disclosing the times when they acted shy themselves (Zimbardo, 1981, p. 166). Because children often view parents as powerful, god-like figures, the children will tend to feel better about their own shy behavior. If the parents then talk about how they became more outgoing (e.g., by setting a goal of acting more outgoing and pursuing it), the children will have a powerful model to follow. The beauty of using personal coping anecdotes to lead children is that there is not much for the children to resist. No one is telling them to do anything. The parents are just describing what they did that worked.Our Application: I told Elizabeth about how I was afraid to talk to girls when I was a young teen and about how I was afraid to give speeches in class. I added that fortunately I got over those fears or I might never have become a professor and might never have married Elizabeth's mother. I don't know what effect, if any, that had, but I do know that Elizabeth often asks me to tell her about my childhood, indicating great interest.
Children who expect to benefit from a behavior tend to engage in the behavior (Pear & Martin, 1996, p. 111). The most convincing way for parents to tell children the value of acting outgoing is by giving personal examples, e.g., "To become a teacher I had to overcome my shyness because teaching requires a person to talk to new people almost every day." The parents can then explain the more immediate value to the child of outgoing behavior, such as making more friends, having more fun, and enjoying school and other social activities more.Our Application: I told Elizabeth that she would make more friends and have more fun if she spoke to other kids. She obviously wanted to play with other kids, but she lacked the confidence.
One way to help children begin to control their fear of certain social situations is to show empathy when they feel afraid to interact with others. So, if a child refuses out of shyness to go out on a field for soccer practice, a parent might say, "I get the sense you feel worried [self-conscious, shy, afraid] about going out there. I feel worried sometimes too - when I'm not sure what to do and other people are watching me." By showing empathy, a parent helps the child feel understood and accepted and also helps the child identify and talk about his or her emotions and start searching for a way to control them. See Rogers (1980, p. 156).Our Application: I showed empathy at times when Elizabeth felt afraid - of anything. Most memorably, I told her once when she felt afraid of going to her first swimming lesson that I could tell that she felt afraid and that I too had felt afraid about swimming lessons. As soon as she heard that, she said, "I'll be brave," and she walked over to the pool. I also showed empathy when she entered a new situation, such as watching a child karate class. I said something along the lines of, " I can tell you feel excited - even nervous - about being here; I feel excited too."
When talking with others, parents sometimes say in front of a child that he or she is shy. Big mistake! Children who are told that they are shy tend to start thinking of themselves as shy and then fulfill the role, without making any effort to change. Wise parents never hang a negative label on their children. See Wicks-Nelson & Israel (1997, p. 98) regarding the risks of labeling.Because shy behavior is so obvious in children, other children and adults often comment on it, saying something like, "Oh, she's shy." How do parents best handle statements by others that the child "is shy"? Try disagreeing in a good-natured way (with a smile) and offering a non-labeling alternative explanation such as that the child sometimes takes a while to warm up.What do parents say then when their child fails out of shyness to respond to a question from someone else? There are many options. One is to prompt the child to speak. If that fails, just go on with the conversation.Our Application: Because Elizabeth acted shy around unfamiliar people, adults often mentioned in front of her that she was "shy." I never agreed with anyone who described Elizabeth as shy in her presence. Instead, I usually said something like this: "Actually, she's quite outgoing around people she knows well." To further counter those comments, I told her how bold or outgoing she was whenever she did anything in the least bit bold or outgoing. So when she climbed a wall and jumped off, I told her she was "bold." When Elizabeth talked to unfamiliar people, I told her she was outgoing.
A good deal of research supports the value of goal setting in improving performance of various types (Locke, 1996). The most useful goals are those that are measurable (quantifiable), challenging yet realistic, and are set with the involvement of the person whose performance (behavior) is in question. For many shy children, a realistic, challenging goal is to say at least one word to one new person every day. Other possibly appropriate goals might include speaking in front of a whole class, joining (even silently) in play with another child, or asking a teacher a question. Parents can help children see their progress by posting a chart at home that shows a star or a smile for each day the child achieved the goal. Children usually like putting up the sticker themselves.Our Application: At the very start of the training program I set a goal for Elizabeth to talk with a new person every day. At the end of the day and often also in mid-day, I talked with Elizabeth about how many people she had talked to for the first time that day. I kept track of the results for several weeks until the behavior of speaking to unfamiliar people became fairly regular.
Children learn a great deal through observing the behavior of parents and others (Bandura, 1984). In fact, count on children to do more what a parent does than what a parent suggests. Parents who never invite anyone over to the house, who never take phone calls, and who never speak to strangers may tend to have shy or nonsocial children. Parents who want their children to act more outgoing are wise to monitor their own behavior and act outgoing whenever possible in front of the children. Invite friends and family members over, visit neighbors, and speak to pleasant looking strangers in grocery store lines. Most importantly, talk with children the age of your child -- join them in their games. If your child won't speak or join in, don't worry - you're setting a model that shows that acting outgoing is something you do with kids and that the kids usually respond well. You're also showing your child how to interact with others. If your child becomes agitated at your behavior (because of embarrassment), show empathy and end the interaction in a socially skilled way. But repeat that type of interaction again and again, gradually increasing the lengths of the interactions over a course of days or weeks.Our Application: I set a model of outgoing behavior. I had never been one to speak to strangers, but that changed in this program. I spoke to adults and children in stores and on playgrounds. Also, my wife and I invited more friends to our house.
The more practice shy children get interacting with unfamiliar people the faster the shyness will decrease. However, the exposure will work best if it is gradual (Sarafino, 1086, p. 110). Whenever possible, let the child get used to the setting and people before you push the child to interact. Help the child develop confidence in one new setting at a time, little by little. The setting could be a favorite yogurt shop where the child gradually begins to place his or her own order. The setting could be a neighborhood playground where the child eventually asks an often seen child what his name is. The key is for the shy child to visit the setting and, if possible, certain individuals, repeatedly, gradually acting more and more outgoing.Expose the child to as many types of settings and people as possible. Make sure to expose shy children frequently to younger children. As Zimbardo and Radl (1981) and Honig (1987) noted, some shy children show more confidence in interacting with younger children. Also, expose shy children at home to new people who are invited over. At home is where shy children tend to feel most confident.Our Application: I took Elizabeth to more new places than ever, including child-activity programs in libraries and bookstores. I increased efforts to arrange play dates with other children. I took Elizabeth with me to work at times, and I invited neighbor children and parents to the house
Prompt shy children to speak, join, or interact with others whenever there is any chance that the children will do so. Specific prompts work best (Martin & Pear, 1996, p. 37), e.g., "Tell her your name is Margaret" or "say good-bye." If the child won't say anything to a person, try prompting the child to wave hello or good-bye. A wave is a step in the right direction. Another good strategy, which might be called triangulation, involves speaking to another child, then asking your child what he or she thinks about something relating to the conversation. For example:...