It’s been a big surprise to me as a generally quiet (and totally introverted) human being that my 6-year-old is naturally outgoing.
He was the kid bounding into preschool on the second day without looking back as his classmates clung to their parents. He makes a new friend just about every time we go to the playground. This spring, he joined a peewee baseball team where he was basically the only kid who didn’t know anyone else, and after maybe four minutes of initial clinginess, he butted into the other kids’ dynamic, utterly oblivious to the fact that he was the odd man out.
In general, he is rewarded for this behavior. His teachers call him a leader. People (myself included) marvel at how sociable he tends to be.
His younger brother, on the other hand, appears at this point to be much more like me when I was a kid: quiet in new situations and much more likely to hang back. (I say “appears” because he’s only 3, and I have no idea who he is yet. He told me today that his favorite color was “broccoli cow” so it’s safe to say he’s still figuring out himself and the world.)
But I notice already that people seem to want my quieter little kid to change — to come out of his shell, and to jump into new situations with the kind of gregariousness that comes easily to his brother. I both hate that for him and want to do my due diligence as a parent by preparing him to exist in a world that tends to reward extroversion.
So what are parents of shy kiddos to do? How can we support them and help them grow without forcing them to change?
1. Stop seeing shyness as a weakness
First, know that if your child comes off as shy in new situations, they’re in very good company.
“Most children show reticence when meeting new people. That’s perfectly normal — and that initial shyness is just how we enter new space and get our bearings,” Koraly Pérez-Edgar, associate director of the Social Science Research Institute with the Child Study Center at Penn State University, told HuffPost.
Picture, say, a kindergarten classroom on the first day. There might be one or two exuberant kids who are running around and checking everything out, but the rest stick close to their caregivers, or need some coaxing before they even head into the room, Pérez-Edgar said. It is completely developmentally appropriate for young children to feel shy in new settings.
That doesn’t mean that shyness is atypical or bad in older kids either, even though many parents (and other adults) do still have a tendency to see outgoingness as the ideal. Just look to the work of Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” who has spent years arguing that we have an unfair cultural bias to extroverts who thrive on stimulation.
“I’ve never had a parent come to me and say they’re worried about their daughter because they have so many friends, and they’re always getting invaded by play dates, and they’re always at the center of the playground. Because parents kind of see that as an ideal,” Pérez-Edgar said. “But you can be a shy child with one or two really good friends, who you talk to, who are supportive. That is great. That is not something to worry about. That’s just your child’s personality.”
In fact, shyness can be a benefit. Adaptive shyness can help people think before they act, which means it is protective, and may even make people seem more calming and trustworthy. Experts who have studied shyness urge people not to think of it as a better or worse way of being social, just a different way of being social.
2. Avoid labeling your kiddo, and ask others to stop too
Now that I have a cute, cautious toddler, my days are filled with interactions in which an adult will say hello or coo at him, he’ll scurry behind my legs, and the adult will say, “Aw, he’s shy!” If they don’t, I’ll say it myself to reassure them that my kid’s not being rude.
But I shouldn’t and they shouldn’t. In fact, I remember hating those moments in my own childhood. It’s weird when someone calls out what they perceive to be your own personality right in front of you. It feels limiting; it can be self-reinforcing, too.
“Don’t label your child as shy,” urges pediatric nurse practitioner Kasey Rangan in a blog post for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “Try explaining to others that your child is slow to warm up to others but do your best to not label the behavior.”
Simply pointing out that your child is complex could be enough of a nudge to remind the adult not to label your child, even if they didn’t mean any harm.
3. Give your child controlled opportunities to practice socializing
The controlled part really is the key here. It’s important that parents not push shy children into overwhelming social situations, or new situations where they feel really uncomfortable. But it’s also important to give children plenty of opportunities to practice what it feels like to try new things and meet new people.
“There have been a number of studies that show that when inhibited, shy children go to preschool a few days a week, or they’re in a club or on a team, that can be enough to get them over the hump and learn skills,” Pérez-Edgar said. “It’s just a matter of practice, and it can and should be structured.”
You’re looking for that hard-to-find sweet spot between pushing your shy child a bit, without forcing them into situations that just aren’t a good match for their personality. Pérez-Edgar recalled how she used to take her shy child to gymnastics, but sat with her in the gym area (rather than the parent viewing booth) the first class. By the second class, she was able to back away a bit.
Also, know that your child might always take a bit of time to warm up. What you want to see is that they get there eventually, and that they start to play and explore — even if it takes, say, 20 minutes of them feeling reticent at first.
4. Ask them open-ended questions about how they feel
While you don’t want to label your child as shy, it is important to give them opportunities to talk about what they’re feeling as they head out into the world and explore new situations.
You can keep it really simple and open. Something like, “What were you thinking today? Did you like being at the swim class?” Pérez-Edgar suggested. That will help you get a sense of whether their shyness is bothering them in any way, or whether they’re uncomfortable, without you labeling anything or putting your own narrative or concerns on them.
“It’s about letting your child tell you where their limits are, and respecting that,” said Pérez-Edgar. That becomes particularly important as your shy child grows up, and you want to continue to support their personality while still empowering them to talk to you if they’re grappling with anxiety or having a hard time figuring out where they fit in.
5. Know when to get help
If you notice that your child’s shyness seems extreme (they’re tantrum-ing at every school drop-off, or they’re having a really difficult time making friends), or it doesn’t seem to be improving at all even with opportunities for controlled exposure — particularly as they move through elementary school — it’s worth checking in with their pediatrician or a mental health professional.
“The child who you should worry about is the child who never warms up, who never happily enters these situations, who just can’t find their niche,” Pérez-Edgar said.
The good news is that early interventions can be really effective at treating or even preventing full-blown social anxiety, and they don’t have to be “super intense” to work, said Pérez-Edgar.
Then remember, acceptance really is key. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being reserved, and parents should make it clear to their children that they like their personalities just as they are.
“It’s not a problem,” Pérez-Edgar said. “That’s just who your child is.”