Childhood shyness: when is it normal and when is it cause for concern?

This is part of our series on kids’ health. Read the other articles in our series here.


When parents observe shyness in their child, they may wonder if it is normal or cause for concern. For instance, in social situations, the child may cling to their parent, be hesitant to speak, reluctant to interact with others, and play alone when in groups more often than other children their age.

Shyness is of more concern if it is persistent rather than temporary. Some children are “slow to warm up” or engage with others, but do engage well after initial hesitancy. Also, some children grow out of shyness during primary school. However, other children demonstrate persistent shyness over time.

Shyness with other children is of more concern than shyness with adults. It is common for children to be wary of adults, particularly men, but less common for children to be wary of children around their own age.

Shyness is of concern if it results in playing alone when in groups of children. When children engage in interaction with peers they learn skills that serve as a foundation for normal development, such as how to understand other people’s feelings and perspectives, take turns in play and conversation, negotiate a mutually enjoyable joint activity, reciprocate friendly overtures and express their point of view in a way that is acceptable to others.

Children who engage in very little social interaction in comparison to children their age are missing out on these important, cumulative learning experiences. As a result, their social cognition, social skills and sense of self may be less mature than those of other children their age.

Shyness and making friends

Shyness with familiar social partners is of more concern than shyness with strangers. It is of particular concern if children are shy with other children their own age they see regularly, such as childcare or school classmates. Shyness with familiar classmates suggests children may be worried about how other kids treat them, or whether they will be liked and accepted.

Shyness is of more concern if a child is poorly treated by other children than if a shy child is well treated by other children. Shy children are more likely than other children to be excluded and victimised by kids their own age and to have trouble making friends. Being excluded and victimised are damaging to children’s emotional health and sense of self, especially when these conditions persist over time.

Hiding behind a parent is pretty normal, but usually kids warm up to strangers fairly quickly.
from www.shutterstock.com

Although shyness tends to be equally prevalent in boys and girls, shy boys sometimes encounter more difficulties with friends than shy girls. This is probably because shyness is a violation of norms for males to be bold and self-assertive. However, it is important to keep in mind both shy boys and girls can encounter peer exclusion and victimisation.

What you can do

Children need help from adults to stop exclusion and victimisation by other children. When parents become aware their child is being excluded or victimised by other children at childcare or school, they should contact the childcare centre or school to advocate on their child’s behalf.

Shyness is of concern if it interferes with your child’s or family’s routines or activities, or if your child often appears miserable or complains of being lonely. For instance, if shyness prevents your child from attending other children’s birthday parties or school, or prevents your family from visiting friends, then you should consider seeking help from a child psychologist.

Online programs to help children and parents cope with child shyness and anxiety are starting to become available and provide convenient help for a lower cost (Brave Online, Cool Kids Online).

Parents can also do many things themselves to help their shy child. They can arrange play dates and help the child join a group extracurricular activity. Parents can also talk to children about their friendships and act as a sympathetic source of encouragement and constructive ideas.

If a child is upset about a problem with a friend, parents can encourage the child to try to resolve the problem in a way that preserves the friendship, instead of ending the friendship, as well as encourage the child to develop other friendships.


Further reading:

Do kids grow out of childhood asthma?

A snapshot of children’s health in Australia

Nightmares and night terrors in kids: when do they stop being normal?

Bed-wetting in older children and young adults is common and treatable

Migraines in childhood and adolescence: more than just a headache

‘Slapped cheek’ syndrome: a common rash in kids, more sinister in pregnant women

Teenage pain often dismissed as ‘growing pains’, but it can impact their lives

Is hip dysplasia in my newborn something to worry about?

What it means when kids walk on their toes

The Conversation

Heidi Gazelle, Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Heidi Gazelle

The broad area of my expertise is the development of social behaviour, interpersonal relationships, and emotional functioning in childhood and early adolescence, with emphasis on interpersonal and environmental influences on child development. The specific area of my expertise the interpersonal and emotional developmental pathways of social anxious or withdrawn children over time.

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