Why You May Be Doing More Harm Than Good For Your Shy Child

Shy children–whether it’s at the park, a birthday party, or school drop-off, we’ve all seen a kiddo hanging on to his mother’s leg for dear life, not wanting to let go. We’ve also seen the frustration on the mother’s face, knowing that her child will have a fantastic time if he only let himself go. Parenting a shy child and bringing them out of their shell can be difficult, and hard to know the “right” way to do it. So, Breezy Mama asked several mothers of shy kids what advice they needed to know in order to help their child open up, and then we turned to our favorite Go-To family psychotherapist, Dr. Frances Walfish, Psy.D. for the answers. Whether you’re having trouble saying good-bye at the classroom or wanting to know how to bring your child into a group, we’ve got solution for you.

First off, I’ve read that we never call our children “shy” so that they can hear. Why is this so important?

Most shy children are terribly uncomfortable being under a microscope or in the spotlight.  They do not like having their pictures taken, being observed, or feeling categorically labeled.  If you call your child “shy”, the risk is that they may hear it as being flawed or deficient in some way.  Best to treat them with respect and without excuses by labeling.

Some children have such a hard time saying good-bye to their parents (i.e. school drop-off) that the parents don’t want to sign them up for extra-curricular activities. It seems as if this doesn’t help anyone—what should be done in this case?

If you have a child who displays separation anxiety with great stress at times of saying goodbye to you it is best not to push or force signing them up for extra-curricular activities.  The only place that is an attendance must is school.  Birthday parties for classmates and play dates come next.  Extra-curricular activities are optional and should not be enforced.  First, deal with the issues that are keeping your child stuck.  Separation anxiety is never one-sided.  This means it is not only in your child but also in you.  You need to examine your own feelings that get tripped off when your child struggles, tugs on you, and demands you.  Many parents collapse into tears and can’t bear their child’s pain.  Others feel frustrated and even angry expecting their youngster to “get over it”.  This is a complicated phenomenon.  It often helps to get a clean slate professional opinion.  Your pediatrician or school director can offer a good referral.

A friend was telling me that her child melted down when she was dropping him off at camp. He was screaming and crying, causing her other child to cry as well. The counselors said to leave him, so she did, though was wondering if that was the best thing to do. Was it?

In simple language, no.  There is controversy about how to deal with a crying child at drop-off time.  The separation process is extremely delicate.  To rip the mother away abruptly is not helpful.  It is counter-productive.  Most summer camp counselors are not psychologically trained or sophisticated.  I would have suggested that Mom stay with her crying child until he settles down.  Then, Mom should sit off in the background without engaging with her child.  She should sit securely based for him to come and go to when he needs her assurance.  After a day or two, Mom can stay 5-10 minutes and then tell her child she is going to get coffee at the nearby Starbuck’s (previously shown to child so he knows where to envision Mom).  She should tell him if he needs her the counselors will call and she will come to stay with him.  Separation should be handled gradually, gently, and following the individual child’s needs and readiness.

As my child gets older, he clams up and sticks to my side when we enter big group gatherings, such as a birthday party. What words of encouragement can I give him to go break free and go explore?

This is very interesting.  Most children relax and deconstrict as they get older.  You did not mention your child’s age.  If your child is a toddler this makes perfect sense.  Some children become overwhelmed by the intense volume, behavioral expectations, and crowd at a birthday party.  It helps your child if you prepare her for what the kids will do–step-by-step.  “First we’ll do this, then the children will . . . ” and so on.

I’ve read that if your child is shy, to stick to groups of 1 – 2 and then as they open up, move on to larger ones. This can be impossible with birthday party invitations, preschool, music class, etc. Should a parent avoid these gatherings?

If your child is shy play dates work best if you stick to 1 on 1.  Two is a triangular group and can leave your shy child feeling left out.  The real key here is choosing the right temperamental fit in the other child’s personality.  If your child is shy invite an easy-going gentle child for a play date.  Your child could feel overwhelmed by an extraverted outgoing personality.  You cannot control how many children are invited to a birthday party.  Do NOT avoid these gatherings.  But, have a fully supportive plan in place before you go.  For instance, if your child feels more secure with you nearby, sit near him but as far away as he can comfortably tolerate.  You want to be supportive without fostering his dependence on you.  If your child refuses to participate in games, that’s okay.  Let her watch on the sidelines with you at her side.  She is there but in her comfort zone.  Let her know that her friends are very happy she is with them to celebrate.

How do I make sure my shy child is not left out?  Should I take my child into the group, introduce the other children to my child, and then let the kids take it from there?

You cannot make sure your shy child is not left out, but you can certainly help stack the cards in his favor.  It is fine for you to accompany your child into the group.  But, do not introduce the other children to your child.  This will only put brackets around your child and shine a spotlight on his social limitations.  Exactly what you don’t want.  Also, the other children are sophisticated and old enough to recognize his Mommy doing something he should be doing.  This risks them teasing him about an exquisitely sensitive and vulnerable issue.  Instead, talk with your child about who he’d like to invite for a play date.  Make it a short (built in success) and fun play date that includes ice-cream or baking cookies.  What you want to do is develop a warm support system outside of Mommy who your child can feel comfortable with.  He only needs one or two good friends who treat him nicely and accept him with his shyness.  Remember, if your child is left out he may not feel as badly as you do.  After all, shy kids prefer to remain on the sidelines.  This is a process.  Remain calm, steady, and fully accepting.  He will absolutely get through it.

A few people wrote in with the same sort of question—one reader asked, “I always wonder if it is appropriate to ask or “force” a child to talk to adults when clearly the child is uncomfortable. I see a lot of parents do it but it seems hard on the kiddo.”

You are right-on.  It is hard on the kid when a parent pushes or “forces” the child to talk.  Absolutely stay away from force.  This will only shine a spotlight on your child’s struggle and make her go further underground.  If she is angry with you for forcing her to speak (anger is at the root of a child’s withholding speech), she will only become more constricted and silent.  There is a disorder called Selective Mutism.  It begins with a shy introverted temperament and anxiety about being the focus of attention.  When the child feels forced to perform or achieve it becomes an issue of control.  The child withholds speech as a means of “getting back” at the intrusive parent who forced them.  Support your child to allow her to speak on her own terms at her own comfort level.

And another mom asked, “How should you respond when someone tries to engage your child and they look away or do not reply because they are shy?  Like when I say – “Tommy can you say hi to…. and Tommy just turns away and says nothing. Am I making Tommy feel bad by putting him in this situation or how should I encourage him?” What are your thoughts?

This is a great question illustrating a common scenario.  The adult waiting for Tommy to say hi is likely going to think Tommy is disrespectful or rude.  Or, worse yet, you have not done a good job of teaching your child appropriate social skills.  However, you and I know that is not the case.  The issue is Tommy’s comfort level with other people.  Because you are a caring, good mom you value Tommy’s feelings more than you care about what outsiders think.  It’s okay for you to say “Tommy, would you like to  say hi to….”  If Tommy turns away and says nothing, you can say, “Tommy is working on saying hello to strangers and new friends.  Today I’m going to say hi to you for both of us.  One day soon Tommy will be able to say hello to you himself.”  In other words, you are addressing the awkward moment and diffusing it by narrating what is going on and supportively saying Tommy will soon be up for it himself.

How does a parent know when shyness is actually a problem or condition for the child? Are there signs to watch for?

Everything falls on a continuum or spectrum.  For example, I am an extravert but I feel shy at a party where I don’t know anyone.  Shyness becomes a problem when you hear from your child’s teacher that your child is consistently silent in class.  I have worked with a number of children, more often girls than boys but not exclusively a female problem, who have never uttered a single word to their teachers.  I treated a 5 year-old girl who never went to the bathroom at school because she was required in kindergarten to raise her hand and ask permission.  She refused.  She did not answer the teacher when asked questions.  These are warning signs that consultation with a professional is needed.  Another warning sign is if your child chooses another child to be her voice.  This is exemplified by your shy child choosing one specific child who is the only one she will speak to.  If the teacher asks your youngster a question, she answers by telling the chosen child instead of speaking directly to the teacher.

One mom wrote in and said, “We do a lot of role playing at home before we are going to a family event where I know he is going to feel uncomfortable.  Is that a good strategy or am I just making him feel more anxious?” Your advice?

I would guess role playing is making him feel more anxious.  The reason is that role-playing is taking a behavior modification approach when I think the anxiety is deeper rooted.  One that can’t be fixed with a quick strategy.  Your child needs to feel accepted as he is, flaws and all.  Then, and only then can he emerge out of his safe cocoon and evolve into a freer more comfortable state.  Each child is uniquely individual.  Embrace him as he is.  He will flourish if he doesn’t feel you are trying to change him into someone else.

Good Luck!

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About Dr. Frances Walfish:
Frances Walfish, Psy.D. is the foremost Beverly Hills child and family psychotherapist. Her caring approach, exuberant style, humor, and astute insights have earned her a sterling reputation among colleagues and national media alike. A frequent guest on top-­tier TV programs, including NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and KABC-­TV in Los Angeles, The Doctors, CBS and often appearing in major publications such as Parents Magazine, Family Circle and Woman’s Day, Dr. Fran continues to lead the field with her expert insights and innovative strategies for parents, children and couples.

Her current book, The Self-­Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child from Palgrave Macmillan’s/St. Martin’s Press, December 7, 2010, is receiving acclaimed reviews. William Morris Endeavor and Lake Paradise Entertainment are presently collaborating with Dr. Fran to produce a television series offering therapeutic guidance and help to families in America. More information on Dr. Fran can be found online at DrFranWalfish.com.

To order Dr. Walfish’s book ($11.56 on Amazon), click here.

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  1. This is all such fabulous advice. My daughter used to be rather “slow to warm” until she was about 2 1/2-3. Occasionally even now, at 3 1/2, she’ll still enter situations like birthday parties very tentatively. But these days she’s much quicker at seeing something she’ll want to play with and taking those first steps away from behind Mommy and Daddy’s legs. After 10 minutes she’s running around like she owns the place, talking and laughing. It’s been such a relief to see her come out of her shell as for a long time I’ve been in the situations like were mentioned in the post – concerned she’d miss out on things, hoping adults wouldn’t think she’s rude if she didn’t respond or hide her head when they approached. Not sure if there was any one thing that has lifted some of this shyness but I’m sure time has been a factor.

  2. Alysha Barre says

    Thank you so much – great advice – especially with the how to deal with a say hi to “so and so.” I now know how to respond!

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful advice! It is very helpful.

    One thing I take issue with is the “Say hi to so and so” question. I always thought that was a bit like treating your child like a trained monkey. It’s demanding and confrontational, especially with people the kid doesn’t know very well.

    The tactic listed above, where the parent prompts the child to say hello, and then if they don’t respond essentially talks about the child in third person while they are right there is condescending to me.

    Why not instead, introduce the new person to your child with no obligations to force a verbal response from the child? Sometimes, I think we need to put ourselves in the place of our little ones and instead of forcing them to mimic adult social skills at an early age, give them time to observe, and eventually when they are ready they will let you know. There is no need to make them conform to adult standards when they are little.

  4. Hi Eliza. Your comments are gentle, empathic, and sensitive to your child. I love that! You and I are not at all far apart. It’s fine to take your approach, introduce the new person to your child with no obligations to force a verbal response from your child. My discomfort is that there is an awkward silence where you all parties – your child, the new person, and you – all know what’s going on and no one is talking about it. It diffuses the moment and is intended to help your child feel understood if you address it supportively and empathically. Talking is the glue that holds relationships together. Thanks very much for writing!

  5. Great article. I have one child who is shy. I used to be very shy but have overcome most of it. It can be very painful for the child who is shy. I would even have some people think she was not friendly or even rude. Thanks for the advice.

  6. I want to make a suggestion for the parents of a shy kid: Get them a playset/swingset in their own backyard to play on. Not only does it release some of that pent-up frustration, it also encourages that they invite someone over to play with them! It really brings them out of their shell! I tried this at my house, and it really worked. He loves being outside on his playnation playset, and he found some confidence! (I got my set at http://www.playnation.com) They also have backyard accessories if your yard is small (like sanboxes, see-saw, etc.)Another site is http://www.gorillaplaysets.com/


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