Age-by-Age Guide to Helping Your Shy Child Thrive

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by: Erin Dower
Not every person is cut out to be a social butterfly. Research shows that nearly half of all teens and adults identify themselves as shy. Some people are born with a timid temperament, and others seem to develop a shy personality along the way. What can you do as a parent to give your shy child a social boost? Whether your child is a mildly timid toddler or a highly introverted teen, find tips for helping him succeed and feel comfortable in school and social situations at any age.
shy preschooler
Should I Worry About My Child's Shyness
"Shyness is the tendency to feel awkward, worried, or tense during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people," according to the American Psychological Association. Most children feel shy fairly often, and shyness is a personality trait to be nurtured and embraced — not a flaw to be "fixed." Many shy children are simply happy, quiet kids who are initially cautious around strangers and who have "an inner peace that shines," according to AskDrSears.com. As the hugely popular TED Talk called "The power of introverts" points out, not everyone has a boisterous personality, and quiet people have important gifts to share with the world.

But shyness can become more of an issue when it is "the manifestation of inner problems, not inner peace." Your child may be severely shy or "painfully shy" if he feels constantly worried about social interaction; has few or no friends (when he reaches school-age); and experiences physical symptoms like blushing, sweating, a pounding heart, or upset stomach. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, shyness that becomes debilitating may be a sign of an anxiety disorder, which may require help from a mental health professional. In any case, avoid labeling your child as shy, because he may feel trapped by the label or may hide behind it to avoid developing socially. Talk with your child's teacher/childcare provider and pediatrician about your child's personality and level of shyness, and how you can work together to support him in feeling more comfortable, depending on his age.

shy toddler attached to mom
Timid Toddlers and Preschoolers
It may seem obvious, but one of the best things you can do to support your shy child is to give her a secure attachment — a loving, affectionate, and supportive home environment throughout her childhood. You can also help your child by socializing her during her toddler and preschool years. If your toddler doesn't spend much time with other children, find play groups and music classes in your area. When your child reaches age 3, consider enrolling her in preschool, even if it's only for a few hours a week. Keep in mind that separation anxiety is common among babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, and doesn't mean your child will be shy or have low self-esteem down the road. According to the AAP , separation anxiety is "entirely normal behavior" and a sign of a meaningful attachment between parent and child. Follow these tips for surviving separation anxiety. If possible, start with shorter "practice" separation periods from your child, and gradually spend more time apart after she acclimates to new people and situations. Also, help boost your preschooler's confidence and social skills by arranging one-on-one play dates with peers, limiting her time doing solo activities (such as watching TV), giving her some undivided attention every day, and teaching her age-appropriate life skills and manners. Don't force things like handshakes and hugs when your shy child is little. Instead, model good social graces for your child to see.
shy kindergartener with teacher
Quiet Kindergarteners
Many kindergarteners struggle with coming out of their shell in school, even if they attended full-time preschool. It may be because their kindergarten class is much larger and classroom activities are more formal and structured than their playful preschool environment. So it's wise to boost your preschooler's social/emotional skills — in addition to academic skills — when preparing him for kindergarten. In fact, the more academically gifted your child is, the more he may struggle with shyness that stems from perfectionism and self-esteem issues. Continue to foster self-confidence and social skills outside of school by arranging play dates or signing your child up for a team sport, such as soccer. Keep in touch with your child's teacher about his social skills in school. Even if your child loves to put on a show at home, avoid pushing him at social functions or school events — it may backfire. Give kindergarteners space to develop socially at their own pace.
shy elementary school age girl
Shy Elementary School–Age Children
Many children continue to be shy in early elementary school. Back-to-school jitters are common, as children face a brand-new teacher and classmates. Some parents and teachers consider grade retention for children who are extremely shy, but education experts usually advise against holding a child back for non-academic reasons, because children change rapidly and may grow out of their shyness by the following year. Continue to keep open lines of communication with your child's teacher and to encourage your child to do an extracurricular activity of his choosing — anything that contributes to her self-confidence. Assist your shy child in cultivating friendships by participating in Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts together or by inviting kids in your neighborhood along to the movies or bowling with your family. If your child is showing signs of "painful shyness" or of being bullied because of her shyness, work with a school counselor or pediatrician to get her some individual help or small group therapy.
shy teen boy reading
Introverted Middle- and High-Schoolers
Middle school and high school bring the added challenges of puberty, modern peer pressure and cyberbullying, and changes in friendships. It's a perfect storm that can make even the most confident and extroverted child suddenly shy and introverted. Also, it's easy to confuse a tween's or teen's sudden desire for privacy with a shift toward shyness or depression. So, during the teen years, it's more important than ever to have tech-free family time when you can have meaningful conversations and keep tabs on your child's life and emotional health. Encourage your shy tween or teen to tutor or volunteer to work with younger children to build up his confidence and leadership skills, or to find a summer job or activity where he'll get to know his peers — like a summer camp or ice cream shop. Also, ask your child how he's feeling about his friendships and social life; some children enjoy alone time or prefer to have just a few friends rather than joining the high-school popularity contest. A child who has been shy or introverted all along might always be that way, and that is not a bad thing. Help your quiet teen find healthy hobbies and interests — such as reading, writing, painting, web design, animation, pet care, or instrument-playing. These creative, constructive pastimes could help forge a successful career path for your child.

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