Shyness in Children

by Sarah Itzhaki, PhD & Patrick Matthews

Are your kids shy? How about you? If so, you’re not alone. Nearly half of the adult population in the USA consider themselves to be shy, and the numbers are increasing.[1, 3] Most of us know what shyness feels like, recalling at least one episode when we felt shy during our lives,[3] but for some, especially young kids, shyness is more than a minor inconenience. It governs their lifestyles.

How serious is it? Take a look.

Sarah wanted to enter the mess hall. All the other kids were already seated in groups, munching their lunch and chatting happily. Sarah was afraid that people would look at her, so she hung outside, trying to muster the courage to enter. But her heart raced inside her rib cage, her palms sweated and she felt a warm blush cover her face. She was ashamed that other kids might notice it. So she left. She had lost her appetite, anyway.

Shy people are always worried about what others might think about them, [1, 2] and they mostly expect bad reviews. This is true in new or unfamiliar situations, but also in the everyday events in the shy person’s life.[2] Their fear is expressed through painful physical reactions (pounding heart, sweat, blushing, stuttering) that lead to excessive self-focus, negative thoughts and worry -all affecting their general well being.[1, 3] These uncomfortable feelings prevented Sarah from pursuing her goal, which was to enjoy lunch with friends.[ 1, 3] This inhibition is what shyness is all about.

Shy children like Sarah suffer from an internal conflict called approach avoidance conflict. It means that shy children do want to approach others, but at the same time, they are too afraid to do so. As a result, the shy child may not have good approach skills, and they truly feel that everything they say is dull or stupid. Then, they may hang around next to others without joining in or avoid direct interaction altogether.[2, 4] They rarely speak, and when they do, it’s in a low voice. They also avoid gazing in the eyes of others; hence, shy children may have low results in tests that require face-to-face interactions, and they may be perceived as less intelligent than they are due to their fear of talking.[4]

Jane’s science exam was oral. She studied hard and knew the material by heart. But during the exam she found it hard to express her knowledge and hardly managed to say an intelligent sentence.

Shyness in Children

In preschool, kids are exposed to large and new peer groups. For shy children, this may make the start of preschool stressful. Preschool is a constant challenge for shy children, and it doesn’t ease up even after time has passed and they become more familiar with other preschoolers.

Shy children in preschool often show signs of social anxiety during free play with peers. They have depressive symptoms and lower social skills. As a result, they have lower self-esteem and lower sense of self-worth, which may lead to peer rejection. Even adults may think of shy children as uninteresting or dull. Thus, a vicious cycle may begin that only augments the shy child’s low-self esteem. During later childhood and adolescence, shyness becomes increasingly associated with loneliness, depression, social anxiety and, of course, a lower sense of self-worth and general well being.[2, 4]

Shy children may feel tiny in relation to others, or wish to disappear all together.

Tom found a way to disappear.
Whenever people of any age came to his house he quickly ran away and hid behind a nearby chair or under the table.

Shyness has a higher psychological cost for boys than for girls. Shyness in girls is more rewarded and accepted by parents, which results in positive interactions. However, shyness in boys is more likely to be discouraged and lead to negative interactions. Shy boys are more likely than shy girls to be socially withdrawn in preschool, displaying solitary-passive behavior that leads to adjustment difficulties.[2, 4]

Why are we shy?

“Why” is the first question all parents ask whenever their kids have problems. Why my child? Did I do something wrong? Is it a problem with their diet? With shyness, there are two answers. The first is natural. Shyness runs in families. About one fifth of babies are born with a tendency towards shyness,[1]and many of those remain shy all their lives.[1]

Shyness may also be caused by environmental factors. Eric Erikson believes that shyness may develop during the “terrible twos,” when a child tries to gain independence yet remain the focus of his parents’ attention. Normal life challenges, such as a new day in pre-school, kindergarten or school, peer mockery, teasing or bullying can also induce shyness.[1] Any single incident or a repeated incident, especially during childhood, that makes us feel uncomfortable or unworthy may lead to shyness or shy behavior.

Cultural changes within the United States have exascerbated the problem. Fear of crime has led to smaller more controlled play groups, giving children less opportunity for natural, unstructured interpersonal development.

Annette hated recess. During class-time, she knew what to do. She was smart. She was a computer wiz, and spent hours on it. She’d helped kids with schoolwork more than once. But during recess, when free play was on, she was always lonely by herself. She wasn’t sure of what to say to join in the conversation. She felt that everything she said sounded out of place or just plain stupid.

Another important factor is the increasing use of computers, video games and TV as a form of non-human means of fun and play. In the past, having fun meant playing with neighborhood kids. Automation is replacing people serving people. In many areas of life, from bank ATMs to gas stations to automated telephone answering services, it is possible to avoid dealing with human beings. [3] Technological forms of communication that may be convenient for a shy person may also increase his shyness.

What can we do about it?

How can we help our children find their way past their own shyness? Here are five general ideas:

  • First, help kids understand shyness by recognizing that it is a part of who they are. Being shy is not a horrible thing. Everyone has challenges in life, and overcoming shyness is just one of them.
  • Be supportive of your child’s temperament, but not overprotective. This may help to overcome any initial inhibition in new and developmentally challenging situations, such as a new day in school. Helping our child engage in successful social activity is another good way.
  • Acceptance not judgment. The child must feel safe in his emotional relationship with his parents. This depends on the parents’ ability to ‘be there’, to be sensitive and stable and to cater to the child’s need. All this gives the child a sense of control and teaches him that his parents are available, responsive and predictable.[1, 2]
  • Never let our own childhood memories and frustrations get in the way! Once we accept ourselves, we will be able accept our kids’ imperfections. Love them for who and what they are.
  • Encourage social interaction. For a shy person, its easy to be overwhelmed by the prospect of social interaction. Help the child see the benefits and fun of being with other people, help them see that overcoming shyness is a challenge they want to take on.

General concepts are all well and good, but what about some specific recommendations?

Start with Sarah’s book and toy set The Two Tuba Switch. It was designed specifically to help you help your children with shyness. The highly illustrated story along with the character toys and book activities enter the realm of what it feels like to be shy. For example, Mitch’s “switching” into objects is a parallel to the shy child’s desire to hide behind objects. Role playing and bookmark activities offer coping strategies, and fun!

There are other games out there, as well. For teachers, the Kubit2Me games are a fun way to encourage students to get talking. For gatherings with friends and family, PennyStones work as a great way to spur interaction. Both are nonthreatening, and, if done in an encouraging way, help build social confidence.

Try different games. You may find that the trigger for the shyness is insecurity, or a fear of failure. If that’s the case, look for games that have no loser. Games like Hiss, where players place cards to build snakes, or Elefun, where players catch butterflies, might be just the thing to draw them out.

If you find that the shyness is due to social pressure, try games that involve them in a nonthreatening way. Duck, Duck, Goose is a classic example. During most of the game, the kids are sitting in a circle, giggling at each other, with no pressure to interact at all. If you play Duck, Duck, Goose, check out Hasbro’s boardgame version of it, with a plastic duck that moves around the board.

Finding games your shy child enjoys will help him or her experience the positive benefits of social interaction, and may open the door to more social confidence. After all, nothing motivates a child like the desire to have fun!


  1. Henderson, L. & Zimbardo, P. “Shyness.” Encyclopedia of Mental Health. Academic Press. San Diego, CA.
  2. Rubin, K. H. and Asendorpf, J., BEd. “Social Withdrawal, Inhibition and Shyness in Childhood.” Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, publishers. NJ, 1993.
  3. Payne, K. “Understanding and Overcoming Shyness.”
  4. Coplan, R. J. & Armer, M. “Talking Yourself Out of Being Shy: Shyness, Expressive Vocabulary, and Socioemotional Adjustment in Preschool.” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 2005; 51(1):20-41.

Sarah Itzhaki has a PhD in medical science and clinical nutrition. Using her expertise in clinical treatment and research, her goal is to bring health-awareness to the home through fun experiences. Owner of Toys’NTayls, creator of educational books with toys and games.

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