The Problem-Solving Parent: Solving the Shyness Problem
By Eleanor Reynolds Children and Families Expert

Every morning, three-year-old Stevie arrives at preschool, hiding behind his mother’s skirt. She slowly shuffles him into the classroom and remains for several minutes, getting him started on his favorite puzzle. After she leaves, Stevie works on his puzzle and watches the other children. The teacher and some of the other children suggest activities that Stevie might enjoy, but he declines. He observes the children at play for almost an hour, until the teacher announces circle time. While other children sing along and take turns talking, Stevie sits silently. When circle time is over, Stevie is finally ready to play, by himself or with other children. Stevie’s parents say he is different at home: outgoing, talkative and full of fun. They say he sings all the preschool songs at home and talks about his preschool friends. What happens when Stevie arrives at the preschool door?


Helping the Shy Child

It is estimated that 40 percent of children are shy. Shyness is the result of compound fears, which may include fear of criticism, fear of being imperfect, fear of rejection, and fear of losing control. A child’s inborn temperament contributes to shyness and may even be inherited; in this case, the child usually has at least one shy parent. The child’s previous experiences also play a part in shyness - being teased, called names or being bullied by other children can evoke negative emotions and cause a child to withdraw. The child may even interpret seemingly benign experiences as risky and frightening. Whatever the cause, you need to know how to help your child deal with and solve the problem of shyness. The following strategies provide some guidelines for you and your child. 

·         Accept Your Child. Give her unconditional love. Never mention shyness in her presence. If you are the shy parent of a shy child, you may believe you have to change your child to avoid the pain of your own experience. You can help your child, not by forcing her to change but by accepting that she is shy. This allows you to love her as she is and gently pass on the tools she needs to build self-confidence.

·         Set an Example. Let your child see you as a giving, caring person who reaches out to others. Demonstrate empathy, friendship, tolerance, affirmation and consideration. Teach your child that the world is not a scary place, but rather a place where love and kindness abound. 

·         Take Time. Ease your child into new situations. Allow for slow transitions and respect his need to stand back and watch until he feels ready to join a group. Make sure that other adults also respect that need and do not force, prod, or cajole him to interact until he is ready. Ask them to be patient and allow him the time he needs to warm up.  

·         Encourage Risk Taking. Show your child that making a mistake is not a tragedy. When you make a mistake, talk to her about how you will go about correcting it constructively. Help your child find an activity in which she can take some risks, regardless of consequences, in order to gain self-confidence. 

·         Express Feelings. Teach your child the words that express frustration, pain and anger so he can talk freely about new and scary situations. Express your own feelings accurately (when it’s appropriate for your child to hear) and forgive yourself for your own inadequacies. Teach him some assertive responses to the aggressiveness of other children, such as “Stop doing that!” or “That makes me angry!” 

·         Role Playing. Before exposing your child to a new situation, tell her what to expect and rehearse some things she can say. Pretending ahead of time can relieve your child’s anxiety and prepare her for a positive experience. 

·         Provide Social Experiences. At about three years of age, sometimes younger, children want and need play time with other children. A few hours a week in a good preschool with a teacher who understands shyness can help your child learn to manage his shyness. Play dates with children who are younger can also help your shy child gain self-confidence. Make sure the teacher or other parent will allow your child the time he needs to get ready to interact with other children. 

Some children outgrow their shyness; others learn to be successfully shy. For both children, your acceptance and support will make a difference.                                                        


Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at