Has your child gone from being extroverted to suddenly becoming the shy kid at the playground? Perhaps they were vocal and socially outgoing at childcare, but now that they have entered school, they seem more reserved and less confident to make new friends. Read on to learn why children might develop shyness or become introverted and when it could be more than shyness at play.
What Causes Shyness?
Shyness is when someone feels apprehensive, uncomfortable, or awkward around others. It’s most common in new situations or when they are around unfamiliar people.1 Socially awkward signs of shyness could be avoiding people or retreating from situations that trigger their discomfort because they worry about negative responses like being criticized, rejected, or humiliated.1 People often confuse shyness and introversion because the behavior looks the same. When we consider if a kid is an introvert vs. shy, the difference is that introverts choose to avoid social situations (they find them overwhelming or don’t find value in them). Those who are shy are fearful or worried about those same situations.2
The cause of shyness varies, and people can be born with it or develop it as they grow. Although it’s not cut and dry as to the exact origins of shyness, research does show some indicators of where it comes from, including:
Genetics Can Lead to a Shy Kid
Some genes passed down through families might influence why some kids are shy.3,4 Genes influence our personality, and temperament is part of our personality. Temperament tends to be fixed and doesn’t change, while personality can evolve over our lifespan.5 There are a few critical elements to temperament: flexible, fearful, or feisty. We all exist along a continuum of these three things. It’s thought that around 20% to 60% of your temperament is influenced by your genes.6
Environment Can Create Shyness
How a person is raised could also have an impact, including when child abuse (particularly emotional) occurs. Another potential factor is a kid raised by shy or socially anxious parents who pass along ways of managing or coping with specific situations to their child.3,4
Shyness Can Be From Life Experiences
Shyness can arise after an episode or instance of anxiety (or having symptoms of panic). So, if your child has had a negative experience or been in a situation where they experience panic, they might develop shyness as an aftereffect. Shyness could be a silent sign that your child is stressed or worried, and it could explain why your previously confident kid is now a shy kid.3,4 This may also explain why shyness develops during significant life changes or stressful periods, like starting school or navigating new environments.1
Is Being a Shy Kid a Bad Thing?
Is being shy bad? Well, yes, and no. There are challenges associated with being shy and benefits, but it comes down to perception and context. In some cultures, confidence and being outspoken are seen as valuable, so shyness is seen as negative. However, in other cultures, shyness can be seen as being thoughtful, being a good listener, considering things before you speak or react, and leaving space or opportunities for others to have a turn.7
Shyness itself isn’t an issue, but the behaviors that come with shyness (like avoidance or non-participation) could cause some problems. A shy kid might miss out on fun activities because they avoid going to new places, or they could miss out on important social activities, like attending school regularly, participating in the classroom, or playing with peers. Some research indicates that lack of classroom participation or difficulty asking teachers for support when struggling could negatively impact educational achievement.8 Children may also feel lonely or experience low self-esteem because they find it hard to make friends, join in, or practice new skills in front of other people if they fear being criticized or rejected.9
But shyness is associated with many positive attributes, too. Shy people tend to “look before they leap,” as they can be worried about new situations. This can mean they are more cautious, consider things, or even avoid risky situations, which helps keep them safe.10 Shy people might have stronger relationships, as they can appear more empathetic because they are good listeners. This can also mean they are better equipped for certain types of jobs that involve working with people in a compassionate way.11
How To Help a Shy Kid
It can be hard for a shy child to cope with new situations and people. There are a few strategies to bring them out of their shell, which can help them learn how not to be shy. Here’s how you can help a shy child socialize:
Be Careful of Labels
Avoid calling them shy, and try reframing things when others call them shy. It can create a situation where they label themselves and then live up to it. Shyness can be seen as negative, and we don’t want our children to associate what is part of their temperament as “bad” or “flawed.” Instead, you could say, “Logan takes a little while to warm up. Once he feels comfortable, he might like to play.”
Be Patient With a Shy Kid
Give your child time to get comfortable. If you know they feel shy in certain situations, understand it might take them longer to play or venture away from your side. Try to manage your feelings about this, as adding pressure will only likely exacerbate things.
Acknowledge Their Feelings
Try to normalize and support your shy kid’s feelings. It’s a fine line, as we don’t want to reiterate or go along with specific fears (like school attendance), but we still want them to feel heard. The trick is to validate the feeling but not the behavior. For example, instead of saying, “I know school can be scary” (which validates that school is frightening), you could say, “I can see you feel worried about school.” It’s very nuanced, but this can help support them and ensure you aren’t accidentally perpetuating the worry.
Practice Makes Perfect
Give your shy kid lots of opportunities to socialize and be exposed to new situations. Also, give them tons of support, be patient, stay visible, and let them stay close. But don’t stop exposing them to situations like this. Otherwise, they won’t learn the strategies to cope.
Provide them with skills or strategies to help them manage situations. They might practice some things they could ask friends (if they are worried about talking to people in a social situation) or do a practice run (if they are going somewhere new, like a daycare). You can also give them coping skills, like having a small comfort item in their pocket to help them feel calm and learning calm breathing or mindfulness strategies.
Is It Shyness, or Is It Something Else?
While being a shy kid is normal, certain behaviors we associate with shyness (like avoiding or feeling uncomfortable in social situations or new places or not talking) can be indicators of other things. Here are some things to watch out for if you are concerned that shyness might be masking something else:
Autism vs. Having a Shy Kid
Both an autistic and shy kid might find the same situations uncomfortable. However, a child with autism might have difficulty reading social cues, play differently, or not be interested in social interaction. This differs from a shy kid who often wants these things or is capable but avoids them due to discomfort. Shyness is about a child’s temperament, but autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder.12
There is a lot of crossover between shyness and social anxiety. For example, being worried about interacting with new people or certain new situations. However, the symptoms of shyness are much less frequent and severe. Social anxiety disorder is associated with strong, irrational fears about interacting with new people. Or being preoccupied with worries of being scrutinized or criticized. People with social anxiety also exhibit a lot of physical symptoms like blushing, shortness of breath, trembling, racing heart, and sweating. They can even experience panic attacks if their anxiety is severe enough.13
Hearing Loss and Language Delays
If your shy kid doesn’t like (or has difficulty) speaking with others or doesn’t seem to interact when playing or socializing, it’s essential to rule out hearing issues or language delays. These might present in similar ways to shyness.14
Nothing is wrong with your child being shy; it’s a part of what makes them unique! Seek help if their behavior has changed recently or their shyness impacts their quality of life or causes them distress. An expert can help you explore whether anything else affects your child’s shyness. They can also provide options for seeking help and support to manage their discomfort.