image You and your child are very excited about attending a birthday party. But when you arrive there, she won't talk to anyone, looks at the floor and clings to your leg. She acts like she doesn't want to be there at all. Does this scenario sound familiar?

All children, whether introverted or extroverted, can experience shyness at some point. Shyness, or feelings of discomfort or inhibition in social situations, is a common issue with young children. Some children, however, do not exhibit shyness until age seven, or as late as 10 years old. Researchers suspect that although there may be a genetic component to shyness, experiential factors also play an important role.

Parents and others who work with children frequently attempt to involve shy children in activities, because they know shy kids are otherwise missing out on social and developmental experiences. But it is also important to help these children overcome shyness, because many of them simply don't outgrow it. They become shy teens and adults.

Why Not Be Shy?

While being shy is not a negative trait, researchers have found numerous significant detriments associated with being shy. These include but are not limited to:

  • Having more negative self-perceptions than non-shy people
  • Having more health problems than non-shy people (due to the lack of a social support network)
  • Earning less money than non-shy people

When shyness is extreme, it may be diagnosed as social phobia, which according to the Encyclopedia of Mental Health, is the third most prevalent psychiatric disorder in the United States.

When to Be Concerned About Shyness

There are no precise guidelines for when a family should seek professional assistance for a shy child. Parents can often help their shy children themselves by reading about childhood shyness, and implementing various techniques that experts say are successful with other shy children. If the shyness is particularly troublesome to a parent or child, or if the shyness causes a child significant social impairment (such as refusing to speak at or attend school, or refusing to join groups), a professional evaluation may be warranted. Charlotte Smith, M.A., director of the Social Fitness Public Education Program for The Shyness Institute in Palo Alto, California, likens this evaluation to a wellness checkup.

According to John Walkup, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry in the Division of Adolescent and Child Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institute, even if the social impairment is only 10 or 20 percent of a child's functioning, that percentage can still be "very important to a child's growth and development" and should be addressed. Therefore, instead of asking whether a child is significantly socially impaired, Dr. Walkup prefers to ask whether a child is "functioning optimally."

How Can You Help?

There are a number of techniques parents can implement to help their children overcome shyness. Here are just a few important ways parents can help:

  • Curb judgmental comments
  • "Shy people often believe that others are constantly judging them," says Smith. Therefore, parents should try not to be too judgmental about themselves, their children, or others, she suggests. Along the same lines, parents should avoid making comments such as, "Don't do that! Everyone is looking at you!" When parents are very judgmental, it reinforces children's beliefs that the world is judging them. This causes them to be shy for fear of negative evaluation.

  • Don't be overly protective; set reasonable goals
  • It's natural for parents to want to protect their children in situations when they feel shy; however, this is not necessarily the best course of action. When parents become too protective with shy children, they decrease their expectations, and unknowingly reinforce the shy behavior, says Dr. Walkup. On the other hand, when parents set reasonable goals for children to overcome shyness and help them to achieve these goals, children can make gradual progress toward becoming more comfortable in social situations.
  • An important first step is for parents to anticipate when a child will exhibit shyness. Then, parents can set a reasonable goal for the child to achieve in connection with the upcoming event. As an example, Dr. Walkup suggests that if you know your child will not order in a restaurant, you might set a reasonable goal such as having her order her own drink. Then, before going to the restaurant, communicate your expectations to your child and do a little role-playing so she can anticipate and rehearse what will happen. (Trying to implement a new goal "on the spot" instead of planning in advance with your child may lead to a power struggle.)
  • Offering a reward in exchange for meeting the goal is one of the best motivators for helping your child to change his behavior. However, even if he doesn't quite meet his goal and earn his reward, it's still important to provide feedback after an event, praising any small progress and effort toward overcoming shyness.
  • Don't push
  • Smith adds that helping children to overcome shyness is "a balance between not being overly protective and not being overly pushy." Although it's important for parents to help children to make small social accomplishments, it's also important not to use harsh comments as a form of encouragement. John Malouff, Ph.D., J.D., an associate professor of psychology at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, explains that parents may run into more resistance if they push their children too hard. The key is to expect gradual improvement.
  • Don't use the "shy" label
  • Find other ways to describe your child other than labeling her as "shy." Calling her "shy" can encourage her to think of herself as shy, and consequently, to act shy. Of course, family, friends and others may still innocently make remarks in front of your child about her shyness. To counter these comments, Dr. Malouff recommends explaining the behavior in some other way. For example, you might say, "She's not shy. It just takes her a little while to warm up."
  • Empathize and identify with your child
  • It's helpful to empathize with your child's feelings of shyness. He may identify with your telling him about when you were shy as a child, and how you eventually overcame your shyness, suggests Dr. Malouff. It's also important for parents to reassure children that feeling comfortable in various social situations takes practice, says Smith. Reading children's books about shyness to children is another way parents can "break the ice" and talk about shyness.

  • Work together for the best results
  • Enlisting the help of caregivers and teachers will give your efforts the most impact. Share which techniques are working and which are not to help your child overcome shyness, and work together toward gradually decreasing his or her shyness.