How to help your shy child


It’s normal for a child to feel anxious and reserved sometimes. Some children are slow to warm up to new people and social situations. But, shyness can become a concern when it impacts their quality of life. By Fundiswa Nkwanyana

Most of us have experienced situations where the child hides when there are visitors or stares awkwardly when they are greeted and some refuse to make eye contact or talk. As a parent, you are often quick to label the child as shy and apologise for their behaviour. I’ve often wondered if this does not make the child think that they are doing something wrong? Children are different and should be accepted as they are because social skills do not always come naturally and need to be taught. Tracy Smith, a psychologist, believes that the way in which a parent reacts to their child’s shyness determines how the child feels about it. “Parents want their children to be sociable and confident, and when they are not, they either shout at them or support their behaviour instead of teaching and guiding them on how to find their own way of interacting with people,” says Tracy.

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Parents need to closely monitor their child’s behaviour overtime before labelling them as shy. Some children are slow to engage, others grow out of it during their primary school years and for some their shyness becomes even more persistent as they grow older.  “I noticed that my 8-year-old daughter yearned to play with other children, but was afraid to approach them,” says Obakeng Radebe, a concerned mother. “Children’s shyness towards adults is normal, but with peers it’s a concern because they need to learn basic social skills such as how to take turns when playing, how to express their feelings and how to accept others,” adds Tracy. If your child does not have these basic social skills, then they are missing out on important developmental and learning experiences. She further states that parents should be concerned when they can see that their child wants to play with others, but is afraid to, they feel lonely and sad, they don’t try new things because they are afraid of being judged and if they start trembling and stuttering in social situations. Nancy Suzman, a child psychologist, says some of the many reasons why children are shy are genetics, personality traits, language delays, imitating parents, autism spectrum disorder, lack of social interaction, hearing and language problems, fear of failure and harsh criticism. “When you notice that your child’s shyness is affecting the quality of their life, step in and help them because it can develop into social anxiety,” she cautions.


If your child lacks social skills, it’s your responsibility to teach them without judgement. Thoko Zulu, an educator, says parents do not teach social skills to their children and assume that they will know what to do. “If you are expecting visitors, inform your child before the visitors arrive so they can be aware. You also need to tell them what you expect from them,” she says. She also adds that while you are helping your child develop social skills, make sure that they are comfortable without over comforting them and keep a safe distance in order for them to find their own feet. You need to lead by example and show your child how to overcome their shyness because kids are more likely to do what you do, rather than what you say. “Praise your child when they have broken their social barriers, and encourage them to continue,” Thoko says. Martha Modise, a mother to a 16-year-old boy was concerned that her child was not outgrowing his shyness. “I didn’t know what to do, so I asked for advice from other parents on social media.” She was advised to host parents and their teenage children for lunch or a braai, encourage her son to do extramural activities and to coach him during social interactions. “When I addressed this issue with him, he asked me to stop comparing him to his siblings who are extroverts. I wasn’t aware that I was, so I changed my behaviour,” Martha says.  Some teenagers become shy due to the changes that they go through such as liking the opposite sex, school grades, peer pressure and hormonal changes. “It’s important to embrace them for who they are while learning social skills because they are very sensitive at this age,” Nancy warns. She advises parents of shy teenagers to share their own personal stories on how they overcame shyness, motivate them to start a hobby that needs social interaction and encourage them to speak up for themselves. “I’ve noticed that most shy children become shy teenagers because the parents enabled the behaviour instead of teaching them social skills,” Nancy adds.

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It’s not the end of the world if your child is shy, but if it’s debilitating shyness, then you need to seek professional assistance. “Shyness can sometimes develop into social anxiety and depression. To be on the safe side, consult with a psychologist for further evaluation,” Nancy cautions. Before you accept your child’s shyness as who they authentically are, make sure that it works in their favour. Some children enjoy doing solitary activities such as writing, drawing and reading. And, if they are happy doing this alone, there is no need to change them or force them to join other kids. Nancy adds that shyness also has positive traits that can work in their favour. “Shy people tend to be independent, insightful, thoughtful, attentive and modest,” Nancy concludes.