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Shyness - children

Shy; lonely; loner; anxious; friends; ;

Most children are shy in some situations, for example situations that are very new to them. If it continues when they go to school and into adolescence and prevents them from taking part in class and enjoying their play times, it can be very painful for them.

But shy children do not always grow up to be shy - there is a lot that can be done to help them overcome their shyness if they are upset about being shy. Some people are naturally quieter and less outgoing than others, and as long as they are happy about who they are it is not a problem. If everyone was the same it would be a boring world.

Contents of this topic

What is shyness?

  • Shyness is when children do not join in with others but they would like to.
  • It can mean:
    • not speaking to others, even when asked a direct question
    • not taking part in games and activities
    • not going into places such as the school playground unless they are with someone they know
    • being very embarrassed if they get attention - even good attention.


What causes shyness?

When children prefer to play alone it is not always because they are shy;  it can be for many different reasons. It can be that they need some quiet time, that they are busy with a project or that they are unwell or unhappy.

If they do not seem to have any friends at all and this goes on, it is worth talking to a health professional about it because there may be reasons that could be helped.

  • Some reasons for shyness include:
    • being "born shy" - some babies seem to be more "sensitive" and easily frightened from birth on
    • the whole family do not relate easily to other people - shy parents are more likely to have shy children - but not always
    • the child may be afraid to be separated from the people he knows best - this is common in the preschool years
    • the child may have lived fairly quietly in early childhood and not have had the opportunity to meet many other people, so the world seems more scary until he gets used to it
    • a child who has not had many children to play with may be shy with children at first, but quite at ease with adults
    • some children are afraid of doing the wrong thing or making a mistake if they join in
    • the child has been pushed to do things before he was ready to - too high expectations
    • the child has very fearful parents, who try very hard to protect him but this can make him afraid of the world
    • the child has been ill-treated and is fearful
    • the child has a disability or hearing loss that makes social life more difficult for him
    • the child is very much more interested in things than in people, or does not seem to be able to understand how to relate to others - this can be caused by a developmental problem and if it happens most of the time, needs to be checked by a health professional. (The topic 'Autism Spectrum Disorder -Asperger Syndrome' has information about one type of developmental problem which causes difficulty with relationships.)

Most babies between about 6 months and 3 years old behave in ways that could be interpreted as being "shy" in that they are afraid of strangers and likely to cling to the people they know well. This is a normal part of developing trust in a scary world. By the time they are three or four most children want to join in and play with others, at least some of the time.


What's good and what's hard about shyness?

The good

  • Shy children often do well at school because they concentrate on their school work.
  • Shy children are not as likely to get into trouble for misbehaving.
  • Shy children are often liked by adults because they are easy to care for.
  • Shy children are often liked by children because they are not aggressive.
  • Shy children are often good listeners.

The hard

  • Shy children may be unhappy and lonely.
  • They do not get practice in learning to get on with others.
  • They are often overlooked by teachers and other adults.
  • Shyness can cause stress which leads to physical problems such as tummy aches and headaches.
  • Shy children may miss out on lots of opportunities.


What you can do

Protecting children 

  • Set a good example - if you are friendly to others your child will feel safer and will learn what to say and do.
  • If you are a worrier it may make your children feel that the world is a scary place and they will be more likely to be shy.
    • Try not to show that you are fearful and as the children get older you can explain that it is your problem and not something that they need to worry about.
    • It can help to make sure they spend time with other adults who are less fearful.
  • Check what other parents around you do to protect their children to give you a guide about whether you are being too protective of your children.
  • Don't expect too much of your children. Encourage them and enjoy their successes but setting standards too high can mean that they will always feel they cannot really please you and this can help make children shy.
  • Give your child lots of opportunities to meet with different people of all ages. But don't force it - let it go at a pace that the child feels comfortable with.
  • Encourage children to take part in hobbies and interests that they enjoy - they will get to know other children with similar interests and learn some new skills.

If your child is shy

  • Don't label your child as shy either to herself, to yourself, or to others. Parents' judgements have a very powerful effect on children, and if the child hears you say she is shy, she will believe that she is.
  • Never make fun of your child's fears or shyness.
  • Help your child to learn skills so she is confident at whatever other children of her age are doing.
  • Don't answer for your children, or apologise for them if they do not answer when spoken to. This draws more attention to their shyness.
  • Encourage your child to talk about her feelings and fears and listen for thoughts that say "I can't" rather than "I can". Help her to think about the times she has succeeded rather than when she has failed! Have a look at the Parent Easy Guide Optimism developed by Parenting SA. Parenting SA is a partnership between the Department for Education and the Women’s and Children’s Health Network South Australia 
  • Get your child to make a list of the things he would like to do.
    • Help him to think of what he might do to make them happen.
    • You may have to make some suggestions at first, but what a child manages for himself will help his confidence more than your solutions.
    • There are several topics on the Kids Health part of this site which may help children work out some things they could try.
  • Give your child support if he is teased.
  • Take new things at the child's pace - give him time to get used to new situations.
    • For example if he is just starting preschool try to arrange to stay with him for the first few times and then gradually spend less time there as he gets more used to it.
    • It is not helpful to force children to do things they are afraid of - help your child to confront problem situations gradually, a little at a time.
  • Get your child to practise what to do in new or scary situations. Make up some "new things to do" games, where you practise what she can do and say in a new or difficult situation.
  • Invite another child to play, for a short time at first, and arrange something to do to take the pressure off your child at first.
  • Try to arrange for your child to have an opportunity to be a helper for another child sometimes.
  • Try to arrange for your child to have some special (looked-for) responsibilities at school.
  • Try some meditation or relaxation exercises.
  • For teenagers, assertiveness training courses can sometimes help.
  • If trying the above suggestions does not help, talk to a child health professional about it.

Children who are shy often need individual attention and an opportunity to shine in ways where they feel safe.  


South Australia

Raising Children Network

Books for parents and children

There are many books written for parent about raising confident children, and for children about how to do things when they feel anxious or shy. You could try your local library - talk to the children's librarian.

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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