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Parenting a child who is shy.

Updated: Apr 25, 2022

Why I don't like shy as a label for children, and what to do when someone calls your child "shy."

You might have realised by now... I am not a huge fan of labelling children as "shy." Here's the thing... shyness is a description of how a person feels in a given moment, it is not who they are as a person. You child may *feel* shy in certain situations, in the same way as they may feel excited, scared, uncertain, anxious, irritable. Like shyness, these feelings are a reaction to circumstance. Feelings are visitors, and just as there are many times when your little one may feel shy, there will be plenty of other times where they don't feel shy at all.

One of the issues that I have with children being labelled as "shy" is that this often happens from a very young age. Little ones who are "slow-to-warm-up" in new or unfamiliar situations, get labelled as "shy" at an age when wanting to stay close to their inner circle of people is developmentally appropriate and biologically normal.

The Circle of Security Model (Hoffman, Cooper & Powell) depicts the three needs of the attachment system as defined by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth:

  • care-seeking,

  • exploration,

  • and caregiving.

Children need a "safe haven" when they are feeling uncertain, so we often see little ones turning-to their parents when the world feels too big or too overwhelming. This is healthy and adaptive. It is unrealistic to expect all children to dive-head-first into new environments, or to feel entirely comfortable around adults with whom they don't yet have a relationship.

Some little ones take longer to settle-in to new or less familiar relationships, activities and situations; they can feel hesitant when faced with new people or places. These children may have a temperament that is "slow-to-warm-up" (Thomas and Chess).

A note here that temperament is believed to be an inherited way of relating to the world, a behavioural pattern that impacts upon parent child interactions; that is, it is not a direct consequence of how an infant has been parented.

It is important to understand that young children often present as shy around adults to whom they are not attached, or, young children can simply show a preference for closeness to adults who are higher on their attachment hierarchy. This is evolutionary and adaptive. What we perceive as "shyness" is actually a function designed to keep children close to their important people at times when the world feels uncertain. This is the Circle of Security in action.

We have to remember that each child approaches the world in their own unique way. When we label children as "shy," this can influence our perception of our child which can influence how we parent them. Children internalise these messages. They grow up believing "shyness" is a fixed attribute that describes who they are as a person, rather than how they feel in a given moment, and this can create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, understanding all of this, the question I am always asked is this...

What can I say when someone else labels my child as shy?

Adults hold certain expectations for little ones. Society tends to celebrate children who transition into new situations with ease, who smile sweetly at adults they don't know, and who are happy to be cuddled by distant relatives. When our child doesn't meet these expectations, adults often make comments like "Ah, she's very shy isn't she?"

Let's pause and think how our child might experience hearing these comments. (Obviously this is age dependent) but when someone labels my child, my preference is to speak to my child. When I step inside my son's experience I can't imagine these comments feel very good to him. So I advocate for him by addressing him. I reframe the situation for him to help him think about himself in a different way.

"You just like to take your time to get to know new people, don't you sweetie? That makes so much sense!"
"You don't feel shy around your friends, do you my love? But these kids are new. It can take time to get to know new people. That's okay!"
"You prefer a bit of space from people you don't know, don't you little one? Me too, baby!"
"Sometimes you're an observer, aren't you? You enjoy checking things out before diving-in. We can watch together for a while!"
"You haven't seen Auntie Kate in a while. It looks like your don't feel ready for Katie-cuddles just yet!"
"Mummy's friend is a new person around here. You can take your time to get to know her. I'm right here with you."

I use these phrases to support my son to understand that it is normal to want to stay close when he feels uncertain, that it is okay to take his time to feel comfortable in a new situation, that it is understandable that he is quieter around people he doesn't know, or people he hasn't seen in a while. That these feelings don't define him; he is a whole spectrum of a little person who acts, feels and behaves differently in different situations. Because "I feel shy right now" is actualised very differently than "I am shy." The "shy" feelings aren't always there.

Kimberley xo

Dr Kimberley Bennett (PsyD) @the_psychologists_child

Thomas, A., Chess, S., & Birch, H. G. (1970). The origin of personality. Scientific American, 223, 102-107

Thomas, A., Chess, S., Birch, H. G., Hertzig, M. E., & Korn, S. (1963). Behavioral individuality in early childhood. New York: New York University.

Hoffman, K., Cooper, G., Powell, B. (2017) Raising a Secure Child. How Circle of Security Parenting can Help you Nurture your Child's Attachment, Emotional Resilience, and Freedom to Explore. New York: The Guilford Press.

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