Louise Shanagher

Shyness and Children

I think shyness can certainly be a natural aspect of a child's personality. We know that some children are naturally more introverted in personality rather than extroverted. Introversion can manifest in children as preferring to play with one or two close friends rather than big groups of children, seeking and enjoying time spent playing alone and finding big groups of people over stimulating and overwhelming at times. In saying that, shyness in children can certainly be a learnt behaviour particularly if children have a shy parent or sibling and of course typically it can be a combination of the two.

Shyness may manifest in children as clinging to a parent, being reluctant to interact with others, especially people that they don't know well, being hesitant to speak and preferring to play alone.
It is certainly common and completely normal for young children to exhibit shyness particularly in unfamiliar social situations and particularly with adults who they don’t know. It is important to remember that shyness is a normal human emotion that we all experience from time to time.

I think shyness can become problematic with it is coupled with ongoing anxiety. It is very often the case that children can initially feel shy in new social situations but in time they can warm up and relax into the situation. Experiencing a certain amount of shyness and anxiety in social situations is completely natural and normal. Some children however, experience higher levels of anxiety alongside shyness, in some cases this anxiety can become persistent, in that it doesn't subside in time and these children can find it very difficult to relax in social situations.

 Children who experience anxiety alongside shyness might complain of stomach aches and headaches in social situations, they may refuse to take part in new activities and can become very distressed particularly in unfamiliar social situations. If a child is experiencing ongoing anxiety and this is negatively affecting their quality of life and negatively impacting family life then I think this is a point where I would recommended seeking professional help for your child.

If a child appears to be shy, but tends to warm up in social situations after some time and does not appear to be experiencing persistent anxiety in social situations I personally feel that it is not necessarily a problem and the child's unique personality should be accepted and respected. In saying that I feel that it is also beneficial to help children gain a greater understanding of what it means to be shy and how they can best help themselves in social situations.

I always explain to children that there are no bad emotions and that all our emotions are ok to have. I think that this is a simple but powerful message that all children need to hear. I then explain to children that our feelings are like visitors, they are part of us but not all of us. It can be helpful to ask children to give their shy feeling a name like "Shy Cecil", or "Shy Samantha". I then explain that when “Shy Cecil” comes to visit, that's ok, all our feelings are ok but we can learn to look after ourselves and our feelings well. I explain to children that they can look after themselves and their feeling well by taking 5 mindful breaths, by putting their hand on their heart and saying to themselves "it's ok that I feel this way, Shy Cecil is visiting me now, but I will feel different soon" and then talk about how they feel with an adult or friend if possible. I then ask children to take one more deep breath and say to themselves "I can do it". This is actually the practice of bringing mindfulness and self compassion to our feelings and it is something that I have taught thousands of children and adults to do and I find something that works extremely well.

Children can even make a little card with a drawing of "Shy Cecil" on one side and instructions on what they can do when he comes to visit on the other side. The key here is that children are learning to label and externalise their feeling. This helps children know that they are not "shy" that they are much more than that, but in this moment, shyness is coming to visit them. They also learn that we all feel shy sometimes, that there is nothing wrong with feeling shy and that there are lots of things that they can do when shyness comes to visit. I have found in my work that children find this way of relating to emotions very empowering and it is something they find easy to relate to and to practice in their lives.

Parents can also help by encouraging children to attend after school activities which have a gentle pace and smaller group sizes, children’s mindfulness, yoga and art classes are all good options. Helping children have positive social experiences  by organising playdates, family outings and visits from cousin and friends can help children build up confidence in relating to others.

On a final note, I think what is most important is to respect and accept children for who they are, whilst also gently challenging them and educating them on how to relate to themselves and their emotions with mindfulness and kindness.