Child Behavior: Origins of shyness not clear

Dr. Schwartz discusses the shy child

The causes of shyness are numerous and are often difficult to determine. Research has offered possible origins of shyness as: biological predisposition either genetic or neurochemical inadequate social skills harshly criticized or punished as a youngster overprotection by parents being excessively teased or bullied by other children Although there is no “cure” for shyness and many children do outgrow the more problematic aspects that shyness may cause, there are many things parents can alleviate some of the more painful problems shyness can cause.

As the causes of shyness are numerous so are the possible strategies that can be used to help shy children. Keep in mind not all strategies will work with all children — whatever approach you use with your child, be consistent in applying the strategy. Don’t give up to resistance. The systematic application of the following strategies should help ease the burden of shyness for most children.

Acknowledge the feeling

  • First and foremost don’t minimize the feeling that the child is experiencing. Don’t try to push him into a social situation.
  • Minimizing the anxiety experienced would be like speaking of the minimal dangers of air travel to someone who is terrified of flying. The avoidance for the child is not one of “rational” decision making, but rather it is driven by visceral physiological reactions.
  • Don’t label the child as shy, especially in front of others! This labeling may only serve to perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Talk to your child about when you experienced shyness. Children love to know that this self-assured, confident God-like parent figure was also a shy child.
  • Try to introduce your child to unfamiliar settings gradually in an attempt to make your child feel safe and in control in her surroundings. Rehearse the behavior needed for the event beforehand.
  • Rehearsal is an excellent way to teach children social skills. Also, the more a child is familiarized with a novel situation the less anxious he will be. What 14 year old adolescent hasn’t rehearsed for that first date phone call a dozen times, or adult for that important job interview. These social skills begin in childhood. Some children have it naturally; shy children need to be taught and need to be desensitized to situations slowly.
  • Reward your child for outgoing, social behavior with praise on a chart, if they buy into that, or some type of tangible or reward event may be helpful.
  • Help your child talk about what they are experiencing.
  • Helping your child put into words what they are feeling not only reduces the impact of the emotion through catharsis but also may reduce the event to small manageable tasks that can be overcome.
  • Children learn by imitation - it’s important for parents to model outgoing, social behavior. Early in life children should be exposed to “new” and different people
  • Enroll your child in school related and after school activities that warrant socialization. Sports teams, music groups, drama, dance.

Shyness is not a character flaw and a child should not see his cautious behavior as something to be ashamed of. It’s important for you to help him understand this. To end on a positive note, shyness has its plus side.  Shy children are less prone to engage in maladaptive social behavior, take less impulsive dangerous risks and are usually more sensitive and empathic because they care so much about what others think about them.

Shyness in childhood doesn’t have to be characterized by the picture of a lonely child looking out the window at happy children playing. Shyness can be helped and even reversed. Keep in mind one of our country’s zaniest outgoing comedic screen presences, Lucille Ball, often related how painfully shy she was as a child.

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College. He is available for speaking engagements to parent groups.

Find more help on shyness here.