How to Help Your Shy Child: An Eight-Tip Special

by Lily Hwang, M.S., MHC-LP

The first day of a new school year. An in-class science project presentation. Large school/social gatherings with unfamiliar groups of people. What do these have in common? These are all situations feared by most shy kids.

Shyness is feelings of discomfort and awkwardness during social encounters. Unless you are a gifted extrovert, it’s an emotion experienced by many people, especially in new situations. Although shyness can evolve into Social Anxiety Disorder (an extreme type of shyness that causes intense fear during social interactions), it’s important to note that not everyone who is shy has social anxiety. Scolding or shaming their behaviors are not effective ways to deal with what they’re going through. If so, what can you do to help your shy child? Here are eight tips to help you support your child and make them feel more comfortable in various social settings.

1. Acknowledge and accept their feelings of discomfort.

Shyness doesn’t just appear in certain groups of people. It’s common for most children and adults to portray some degree of “shy” nature, just with varying intensity. So rather than discouraging their concerning behaviors, acknowledge and accept the fact that they may just have a high level of social awkwardness. Empathize with their feelings of discomfort and try to reassure them that socializing with others can be difficult for certain people, and that it’s okay to take some extra time to get comfortable around new situations.

2. Understand and respond to their needs at the moment.

If your child suddenly freezes up while playing or talking with someone, try to find the reason and respond to their needs at the moment. Certain acts or words of the other person may have provoked your child’s anxiety and they may need some time alone to calm their mind. Monitor your child’s body language and behavior and identify their immediate needs. You might say, “Would you like to take a break and have some time for yourself?” or “Do you want to stay with me or spend some time with another group of kids?” or “Do you want to stay and continue playing or go home now?” Ask what your child would like to do and create a safe environment to address their needs.

3. Continue to encourage them and be their biggest supporter.

You may think you know your children well but you can’t understand 100% of their feelings. Only they know exactly how uncomfortable it is for them to be with others and how frustrating it is to not be able to control their shyness. Your job is to be their biggest supporter and continue to encourage them so they can overcome their fear of meeting new people or speaking in public. Let them know that “shyness” may just be a part of who they are and that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. If you’ve have similar experience in the past, it could be helpful to share that with them, and let them know that they can overcome those symptoms just like you!

4. Don’t put the label “shy” on your child.

Try not to label your child as a “shy” kid. It’s okay to acknowledge and accept their natural traits but putting a definite label on your child may cause them to lose the motivation to change for the better. You don’t want them thinking, “My parents and all of my friends already know I’m shy so I could get away without doing ______.” While some level of shyness is inevitable in most people, using it as an excuse to avoid every social interaction can be problematic. Try using more positive terms to describe their behaviors and constantly encourage them by reminding them of the times when they were able to overcome their discomfort to minimize their “shy” perceptions of self.

5. Be patient and wait.

Sometimes, you may hear some impatient parents say to their shy children, “Look at other kids. They have no problem getting along with each other. What’s wrong with you? Stop acting like a baby!” You might feel the urge to rush and push your shy children to be extroverts overnight. However, shaming their behaviors does not instantly make their shyness disappear. What’s more important is to be patient and wait until they are ready to take the steps out of their comfort zone. Just because mingling with others is easy for certain people, doesn’t mean that it is easy for everyone. Give them some time and they’ll soon learn the necessary social skills for the right occasions.

6. Teach ways to express their own feelings and emotions.

Oftentimes, young children do not understand what shyness is. They feel some sort of discomfort but they are not able to name the emotions they are experiencing. Due to their limited ways of expressing feelings, some children will simply decline all invitations to social interactions by answering, “No, I don’t want to.” However, it’s important to model and teach them numerous ways to express their emotions. Using various scenarios to name different feelings can be helpful. For example, if your child feels anxious around another child who is very aggressive during play time, you can teach them to say, “I feel fearful/afraid/nervous because he yells too much while playing.” Practice using various “feeling” words and adjectives to get them to build their emotional vocabulary and share their thoughts.

7. Provide opportunities to interact with others.

Ask your child to identify a few friends that make them feel comfortable and invite them over to your house for lunch, play date, or after school homework sessions. Your child’s biggest supporters are you, the parents. But having friends as supporters is also important. Starting with their close friends, slowly extend the invitations to other children and people who your child shows interests in, and provide opportunities to interact with them in a comfortable setting. It’s a good idea to start at familiar places like your own house because playing in their own room with familiar toys can lessen your child’s anxiety and help them feel relaxed. Gradually, expand the list of possible meeting areas to a friend’s house, playground, etc. and constantly have them comfortably interact with others in multiple settings.

8. Seek professional help to cope with social anxiety.

If you continue to be concerned about your child’s shyness and it’s interfering with their everyday functioning, you might consider speaking with a mental health professional. Although shyness can be one of your child’s natural traits, a professional counselor may be able to identify the underlying cause of your child’s anxiety and help them get through it. Your child may have experienced something in that past and that could have unknowingly contributed to their shyness, which eventually could cause it to evolve into Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD). If it’s caused by a traumatic or distressing experience, it’s important to address the root of the problem. In this case, a professional therapist can evaluate them for SAD and utilize various counseling techniques to effectively help your child cope with social anxiety.

Remember, there are many people who struggle with shyness and social anxiety. Don’t try to rush or force your child to change overnight. Try to empathize with their difficulties and continuously encourage them so you guys as a team can successfully win the battle against shyness and social anxiety.

Suggested resources:

  • Antony, Martin. The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook. New Harbinger, 2018
  • Gabor, Don. How To Start A Conversation And Make Friends. Touchstone, 2011
  • Hendriksen, Ellen. How to Be Yourself. St. Martin’s Press, 2018
  • The Shyness Institute:

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