Shy girl hiding her face behind a chair Are you concerned that your child’s shyness may be holding them back? Or that their “slow-to-warm” behavior may make it harder for them to connect with new friends, explore new opportunities or enjoy new experiences? You are not alone.

Many parents worry their child’s shyness or timidness will hold them back, keep them isolated and prevent them from making friends. Or, that shyness is a personality flaw that must be conquered to become successful. Not true, say experts from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).

“It’s normal to have attachments to primary caregivers and a suspicion of strangers,” says Billie S. Schwartz, PhD, Psychologist at CHOP. “It’s a natural part of child development and some kids may need more time to adapt – or ‘warm up’ – than others.”

Pediatrician Katie K. Lockwood, MD, MEd, agrees and adds: “We have to be very careful about labeling kids or allowing others to label our kids as ‘shy’ or ‘stand-offish’. Instead, we encourage parents to say their child is slow to warm and encourage children themselves to respond to questions when they feel comfortable.”

How can I help a shy child?

There are a variety of reasons a child may be slow to warm to unfamiliar people, places or activities – and much depends on the child’s age and developmental stage. Many young children are particularly imprinted on their parents or daily caregivers and may be uneasy with a grandparent or friend who rarely interacts with them – especially if the primary caretaker is not there. As children enter school and encounter more situations with peers, they may hold back because they are afraid of being wrong, being ridiculed or being in the spotlight.

Parents, understandably, want to protect their children from feelings of unease or worry. But you can’t shield your child from their own feelings for long. Instead, Dr. Lockwood and Dr. Schwartz suggest helping your slow-to-warm child with preparation, practice, positive feedback, validation and distraction.

Preparation is key

Parents can help slow-to-warm children by giving them tools to feel more confident in new situations. For example, if you’re headed to a new park or playground, tell your child about it before you get there and share:

  • The fun things you’ll do there
  • Who and what you might see or experience
  • Suggestions about ways they can join others or start their own activity

If you know details about the location, you can share some information about activities or playground equipment you know your child enjoys (i.e., swings, jungle gym). When you get there, follow your child’s lead. Slow-to-warm children may prefer to walk around the park with a parent first and observe. Encourage your child to talk about what they’re seeing – and what activity they might like to join.

When your child is young, you may need to start a conversation with another parent before introducing your kids. But as your child grows, it’s important for them to learn how to start casual conversations over common interests – like playing tag or collecting acorns. You can help by modeling behavior, like introducing yourself and your child, to others.

Practice, practice, practice

Interacting with new people can be intimidating – even for adults. To help slow-to-warm children meet others, consider practicing at home or with children of your adult friends or close family members. If you know your child and the new friend share a common interest, let them know and prompt an initial conversation such as: “I heard you both like superheroes. What superpower would you like to have?”

You can teach your child to look for clues about what another child might like – whether it’s a Frozen T-shirt, a dinosaur toy or light-up sneakers. A quick compliment or comment can break the ice.

Positive feedback

When you see your kid trying to step out of their comfort zone, praise their efforts – even if progress is slower than you’d like. Maybe instead of playing alone, they played nearby another child, laughed at their jokes or asked a question.

Another tool that can be helpful is offering your child a positive “look back” after a recent experience. Perhaps your child was worried they wouldn’t have anyone to play with at the park but ended up playing frisbee with you and another parent-child duo. Praise their skills, efforts and preparation.

Validate their feelings

Like adults, children often experience strong emotions. But they don’t always have the tools to express those emotions. This can be frustrating for children – and their parents. To help you and your child get on the same page, try to give them some time and space to process their emotions after a disappointment. Ask your child what they need from you – to talk about it, give them a hug, leave them alone or simply sit with them.

Parents may need to prompt children and adolescents to open up. Share what you observe and ask an open-ended question designed to provoke a response such as, “I noticed you got really quiet after the park today, how were your feeling?” Questions can help you better gauge your child’s thoughts and feelings, and you can guide positive self-talk to bolster your child’s self-esteem and confidence.

Distraction

Try not to let your child wallow. It’s fine to give them time to process, but you can help your child move on from fear/worry by offering them a distraction. This can be something as simple as a walk outside, a trip to the mall, board game or movie night.

When shyness turns to anxiety

While many children will grow out of their shy phase or learn to adapt, for some, the feeling can grow and fester, becoming social anxiety. “There’s a distinct difference  between shyness and having social anxiety,” Dr. Schwartz says.

Dr. Lockwood cautions: “If your child’s feelings are impairing their functioning or ability to participate in typical childhood activities – like school, sports or activities – it’s time to talk to a professional.”

Both CHOP doctors recommend you start with your family pediatrician, who can recommend mental health resources in your community.

Katie K. Lockwood, MD, MEd, is an Attending Physician at CHOP Primary Care, South Philadelphia. Billie S. Schwartz, PhD, is a Psychologist in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at CHOP.

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