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Breaking the Chains of Shyness

As adults we often forget our perception of the world when we were children. The sheer scope of sensory stimulation a toddler experiences can be simply overwhelming at times. In fact, it can be frightening to the extent that a child may withdraw from social interaction. Such was the case with my precocious yet painfully shy in public 2 year old daughter. Yet inexplicably at a recent children’s party, my demure little angel took a hammer to her self-imposed wall of shyness and pulverized it to dust.

I can’t point to one particular factor that caused this sudden transformation yet there were numerous possibilities. Her confidence was emboldened due to her older brother being in attendance at the party. The event was held at a kids play gym which included toddler enticing slides, cushioned floor mats and more. The number of child attendees was relatively small with an age range from 2 to 7. Both my wife and I were in close visual proximity. And finally her love of music may have tempered her fears. She likes to move to the groove with reckless abandon.

Suffice it to say, my wife and I were elated by our daughter’s breakthrough. Shyness can be disabling in a variety of ways including a tendency to withdraw from social settings, the inability to adjust to change and ultimately limit the child’s ability to function as a social adult in the future. It’s up to parents to help their children develop the essential skills needed for social interaction. The required level of parental engagement depends on the child’s movement toward shyness. In many ways, it is the child who will need to independently find ways to break free. Certainly, there’s no one size fits all solution. The best course of action may be a combination of support and encouragement.

Based on the collective experience of my wife and I as well as many other parents who have contended with breaking the chains of shyness in young children, I’ve compiled a short list of ideas on how parents can actively approach the subject.

Overcoming Shyness

  • Allow time for the child to warm up to a new situation. Inform other parents or friends prior to social interaction to ease the child’s transition.
  • Find the right balance. If the child exhibits obvious signs of not adapting to a new social situation (i.e. Being clingy to a parent for hours instead of socializing with children) it may be time to call it day and try again at a future opportunity.
  • Jump into the mix. Parents need to sometimes get physically involved whether it’s at the playground or on the dance floor or in a play school setting. Being a model for your child to emulate helps ease a child’s fears. Including other children to play with your child can break the ice.
  • Help children develop a variety of social skills by monitoring their progress in areas such as sharing, anger management, coping with loss, apologizing, defending themselves, making use of humor, forgiveness, comforting someone, asking for help, sticking up for someone else, demonstrating creative thinking, avoiding hazardous situations, giving in to a dare, etc.

How have you helped your children break the chains of shyness? How did you overcome your own shyness as a child? Please leave a comment below.

  • Neither of my kids was very shy, but my daughter (now 8.5) had a lot of trouble interacting appropriately. Instead of being shy, she was just awkward. Interestingly, your advice really seems to work for BOTH use cases.

    Modeling helps. Showing her how *I* approach making friends.

    What doesn’t help, near as I have observed, is just throwing them in and having them sort it out. That never happens.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for your comment Chris. I agree that modeling helps. As for “throwing them in” I would base taking such an action on a case by case scenario. Allowing children at a young age to be exposed to other children without a parent hovering over them builds confidence.

  • Vince… thanks for drawing my attention to your post via Twitter. You asked me if I was always outgoing and the answer is yes, and no. I have always been talkative and happy to jump in when comfortable and around friends. But I used to shy away when in a large group where I did not know anyone. I overcame this by sheer personal determination and “throwing myself in the deep end” as Chris mentions. Although this has worked for me as an adult, I agree wholeheartedly with Chris that for children it is never a wise strategy. I grew into this ability and managed the transformation as only an adult can. My older daughter had a great deal of social anxiety (another form of shyness) and what worked best for her was never, ever forcing her to attend events, and when there allowing her the comfort of staying with me or leaving when “she” felt it best for her. She is now almost 16, and although still shy and a bit resistant to new situations, she has a nice group of friends and has slowly learned to reach out and make new friends/acquaintances when situations that require it arise. I think kids learn to navigate for themselves as long as we, as parents, provide the tools, take a step back, and allow them to figure out what they are most comfortable doing.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for your response Ted. As you mention “kids learn to navigate for themselves as long as we, as parents, provide the tools, step back, and allow them to figure out what they are comfortable doing.” I couldn’t agree with you more. Not “throwing them in” but rather preparing them for their own journey.

  • My 6 yr old, Rachel, has always been slow to warm up to new situations. Entering Kindergarten last year was the turning point. She came out of her shell and found friends with similar interests.

    • Anonymous

      That’s fantastic Kelly. Children with similar interests certainly help break down barriers.

  • What is so great about your articles Vincent, is that you not only relate a story that is relate-able but you give easy-to-understand and easy-to-implement suggestions. I feel we write in similar manners – from the POV of a real person, living real lives, and having real experiences. Therefore, when I read one of your posts, I relate. I learn and I get “take aways.”

    With shyness, the best thing is to put your shy kid in just what worked for your daughter – a place that is familiar and comfortable with people that she knows and likes.

    When I read this, it seemed so obvious, but I assure you that many parents may not have realize how obvious or simple it might be. Of course, every child is different so if this solution doesn’t work, BE CREATIVE.

    Most of all, DON’T make your child aware of your disappointment in them. They will pick up on the slightest of your feelings so that is your challenge in this sort of situation or others where you may have a different issue with your kid(s).

    Another excellent and well-thought out post Vincent. I’m glad you have younger kids ’cause otherwise I’d be worried about you being tough competition (lol)…you write well, succinctly, and without pretension! Keep it up and Happy New Year!

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for your insights Bruce. You always provide clarity when offering your point of view.

  • Kimberley

    I really appreciate the stance you took with you daughter – so insightful and understanding. Thank you for sharing. I have a very shy 9 year old and still today, he’s very shy. Slowly coming out of his shell, but nonetheless, for sure a true shy temperament. Have you seen my video of the shy preschooler? Hope you check it out! http://vimeo.com/9140383

    My best,
    Kimberley Blaine, MA, MFT
    Author: The Go-To Mom’s Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children.
    Founder, http://www.TheGoToMom.TV

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for writing in Kimberly. Your video’s very thorough and informative. A must see for parents.

  • Anonymous

    Great post. My kids are both fairly even tempered in most environments, my almost 8 year old tends to be a little “odd” at times, but she is ADHD Combined. I encourage both of my girls to be confident and not self-conscious, and I think that helps greatly. I want them both to feel comfortable raising their hand in class and giving an incorrect answer, to not worry about what others think, be respectful and polite, but always try. So far it seems to work.

    I don’t recall if I was a shy child, but I know I wasn’t very confident, I had a lot of “criticism” as my weight began to climb about age 8, and I often tried to “hide” however I could. As an extrovert that was quite difficult. I did enjoy acting and especially being in costume and assuming a different character, I think that helped build confidence. I truly didn’t get to the point where I say #ownit until the last 2 years or so. Understanding life as an adult has really helped, realizing I can’t control everything, or how people think of me, I try hard, but still have a thin skin.

    I try to model for them, get silly if I have to. I see them watching me and copying me. I love it. I can’t wait to see who they grow up to be.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you Maya for illustrating your own struggles with social interaction. Your experience coupled with your understanding as an adult lends itself to be a better parent.

  • Great article and happy to see that your daughter is breaking through her shyness.

    My daughter it turning the corner towards two. She’s been pretty social to date, but sometimes we do get some holding on to daddy’s leg for dear life. The next year or two months will be important for her to move to the next level of social interaction.

    Your third point is key, I think. Parents (and older siblings, if any) need to empower and encourage the little ones to do things, and not taking yourself too seriously is hugely important (in so many ways, I might add).

    “If mom and dad can dance and look silly, so can I!”

    • Anonymous

      Great comment Papalogic. Providing children the opportunity to “look silly” will certainly help diminish their inhibitions.

  • Penelopejanereyes

    We have two girls one 13 and one 2. Our oldest has been SO shy in public since she was little. At home she has always been crazy, funny, outgoing but with other people, especially people she didn’t know, she would freeze! Couldn’t udder a word. It was hard to watch. We would ask her to ask for a napkin, or order her own drink at restaraunts when she was 7 or 8 and it would be very difficult for her but with us sitting with her and encouraging her, she would do it…sometimes. Sometimes, she just couldn’t. When she wasn’t able to, it would be frustrating for us but we always tried to keep it to ourselves. We didn’t want her to feel like she was disappointing us on top of what she was already feeling. In the past two years we have watched her fumble through finding her public voice and she is coming out of her shyness beautifully!! In 6th grade she watched people try out, practice for and perform in the school play and I knew she wanted to be a part of it but just couldn’t do it. Last year, she didn’t need to try out to be in the cast as a chess piece for Alice In Wonderland, so she joined the production, to our great surprise and delight ๐Ÿ™‚ She did the show and was so proud of herself!! This year, she is practicing to actually try out for a part in Annie. There are times when she has a hard time finding her voice but she is doing it. I think knowing how important it is to overcome your shyness and having family who support you and give you time and space to be shy is what is needed. She knew she needed to overcome her shyness and she also knew she had our support and could fall back on us if need be. She did it in her own time and in her own way and we couldn’t be more proud of her!! The 2 year old is a crazy chatterbox and doesn’t have any problem with shyness ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for sharing your experience Penelopejanereyes. Such a wonderful example of parents providing unconditional love.

  • To be honest I was a painfully shy kid. I found out about the high school prom in the weight room the day after it happened. I still struggle mightily with being an introvert while my wife is extroverted. I have found that breaking down my fear and being a “social animal” feels really good when I can do it. I think all us shy people want to connect, we just don’t know how. But then I also need time by myself to collect my thoughts no matter what.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your comment Thomas. I’ve witnessed my own daughter needing to process a situation before engaging. It seems to be a common trait with shy kids. Without question, some children are simply wired to be reserved. Yet with support, there’s hope for unlimited potential as they grow into adulthood.

  • This is very pertinent for our 23 month old twins. They are both pretty outgoing with us, and then they are hit or miss with people they know, whether it’s in our house or out, and then strangers, they’re very shy. It’s good to read about some basic suggestions to use in these variety of situations.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for sharing your experience Jared. I’m sure taking care of twins presents its own unique challenges. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Thanks for sharing. I don’t think I ever overcame my shyness, at least not totally! My daughter (now 6 years) is really shy and recently she had a presentation to do in class and froze. This is something we’re definitely working on! Nothing really to share yet as we’re still trying to figure out what works!

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for commenting Vida. Like most parenting, we just try to be the best parent. That usually means leaning on experience from others as well as trial and error. I’m of the belief that shyness in some children may never be completely phased out but instead managed much like a phobia. Not everyone’s born to be an extrovert. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • My wife and I modeled a lot of outgoing behavior- my children have never learned how to be quiet/shy. Part of it is also being involved with the group at hand. If my boys wanted to be with their parents, they were forced to be in the group. When they got a bit older, they didn’t need us in “the group.”


  • Anonymous

    Thanks for sharing your family’s experience Clay. Being engaged parents seems to have reaped tangible benefits for your boys.

  • Hi there! Both of my kids are fairly shy, but tend to warm up quickly if we give them a chance to approach a situation on their own. I’m now extremely extroverted, but grew up VERY shy and like a lot of the other commenters on your site, it was literally me just deciding one day to get over it and realize no one was reacting to me the way I thought they were. I actually realized everyone else is just trying to cover up their own version of “awkward” and if you break the ice, they’ll be so much more comfortable. This has allowed me to move forward and look at who I can “help” feel comfort in situations vs. focus so much on my own fears. GREAT post!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for sharing your experience Laurie. I appreciate your observations about perception versus reality. It’s admirable that you extend yourself to others to “help” feel comfort in their own battles with shyness.

  • To say that people who appear to be over-confident and cocky are carrying around a bit more ego than one needs is easy to do.