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Why we need to stop telling children they are shy

Why We Need To Stop Telling Children They Are Shy

So frequently, we hear parents and professionals refer to children as being ‘shy’. Often, we hear these comments being made in front of the child themselves, or written in their school reports;

  • “Child is too shy to do that”
  • “They find it hard to do that as they are shy”
  • “She’s too shy to take part”
  • “He is too shy to go”
  • “They’ve always been shy”

So, in this  article, we are looking at why we need to stop talking about children as being shy.

What is shyness?

Shyness occurs when a child (or teenager or adult) feels anxious, awkward, worried or tense, when interacting with other people in social situations. It is thought that around 15% of children are shy (reference).

Shyness is caused from factors such as;

  • feeling extremely self-conscious
  • Negative self-talk or beliefs
  • low self-esteem
  • low confidence
  • fear of rejection
  • fear of being judged by others

When a child is shy, they can look at others and compare themselves to them, feeling that they are inferior. Therefore, someone who experiences shyness, often feels fearful. This can mean that they do not engage with social situations, and instead avoid them. This, in turn, increases the issue. It should be noted, that children who are shy frequently desire to be connected with others but do not know how to do this.

What does it look like?

Children who are shy may experience symptoms such as:

  • Blushing
  • Feeling breathless
  • Feeling shaky
  • Struggling to talk
  • Avoiding leaving parents/safe adults
  • Avoidance of activities / interactions
  • Difficulty making friends

What causes shyness?

Whilst there are neurobiological contributors to shyness, it is viewed that the majority of shyness is caused by environmental factors, through our social interactions with parents and caregivers. Examples of interactions which may lead to shyness include:

  • Children who have authoritarian parents who have high expectations and/or are overly strict or enforce strong opinions, can lead to children feeling shy, or that they cannot make their own decisions.
  • Parents who punish children in a harsh manner for mistakes can lead to children who feel that they are unable to express themselves and/or be shy.
  • Parents who punish children’s mistakes by withdrawing connection and emotional nurturing are more likely to have children who are shy.
  • Children with overprotective parents, who are not allowed to experience things for themselves are considered more likely to be shy.
  • Children who have shy parents are likely to mirror the behaviours that they see.
  • Children who are frequently criticised, shamed or humiliated are more likely to be shy.

Why we need to stop referring to it

When we continually refer to a child as being shy, drawing attention to their difficulty, we can increase feelings of:

  • embarrassment
  • humiliation
  • fear of rejection

This therefore increases the propensity for shyness. This further limits the child’s opportunities.

When a child is continually hearing that they are shy, we are also giving them a label which can prohibit them from growth. Children can feel that they cannot break out of the behaviour as this is what is ‘expected’ from them or that they are not capable.

When children are continually told that they are shy, they can feel that this is something that they cannot change, and therefore, their perceptions of their abilities reduce further.

When we label a child as shy, we minimise their opportunities. It can mean that, as adults, we are more likely to step in and do things for children, which further reduces their self-esteem, as well as preventing the opportunities for them to try things.

Steps to support children:

  1. In order to develop self-esteem and confidence, children require supportive and connected relationships, which allow them to build confidence and self-esteem in their abilities.
  2. Schedule social opportunities in advance and plan some things to talk about. Build up the time of social engagements to build confidence.
  3. Plan social engagements around activities which allow children to take short breaks and observe. For instance, social interactions alongside arts and crafts mean that we have opportunities to talk about what we are doing, take time to think and observe, as well as interact.
  4. Use passions and interests as a way to build confidence and connect with others using shared interests.
  5. If other adults refer to your child as ‘shy’ correct them in front of the child ‘many people take a little time adjusting to new situations’ or ‘Lucy just takes a few moments to warm up’ or ‘Fred likes to listen to people before sharing his views’
  6. Be available, but avoid doing things for your child. For instance, be in the room but encourage them to do things for themselves.
  7. Break things into small steps. Taking time to adjust in small sections with reassurance builds confidence.
  8. Use role play to practice communication and connection skills.
  9. Praise specific skills, for instance, “I am really proud that you said hello, even though you were nervous, you were really brave”
  10. Teach children regulatory or breathing techniques to help them feel calmer when in social situations (a full list can be found in our mental health care plan for anxiety).


© Dandelion Training and Development – All Rights Reserved

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Further help 

For more articles about mental health visit – HERE 

To learn more about child and adolescent mental health visit – HERE

For resources to support child and adolescent mental health visit – HERE

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