The Shy Child

Helping Children Triumph over Shyness


By Ward K. Swallow, PhD

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Good news! Shyness is not a disorder; it’s the personality style of 40 percent of all children and young adults. Shyness has its good side: Your child is probably imaginative, perceptive, and thoughtful. Yet shyness can hinder a child’s development. This authoritative, interactive guide is the first book to focus on the problems of shyness and provide parents and children with pragmatic, step-by-step solutions. It will help you achieve wonderful results — stronger, warmer relationships with family and friends, and, most of all, a happy, empowered, less fearful child who looks confidently to the future.

The signs of shyness in children, from infancy to adolescence
How the shy child responds physically and mentally to stress
How your child’s artwork reveals his or her emotions, and how drawing together can reinforce trust and understanding
Scriptwriting, rewriting, role-playing, and rehearsing — important tools for the shy child
Why shy children are so vulnerable to bullies and how best to intervene
How to teach your child to cope with anxiety-producing situations and more.


Copyright © 2000 by Philip Lief Group Inc.

All rights reserved.

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ISBN: 978-0-446-93107-6

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• Your six-month-old baby refuses to relate to anyone except you. She turns her face away from strangers and screams if anyone touches her.

• You try to convince your toddler to play with the other kids in the sandbox, but he simply shakes his head and closes his eyes.

• You never considered your confident, boisterous nine-year-old shy. But suddenly he withdraws from all his favorite activities and starts following you like a shadow.

• Your eleven-year-old daughter is a gifted athlete and a great team player. She is outgoing on the field, but off the field she has no friends and can't connect with others.

• Your seventh-grader is terrified of eating in the cafeteria and hides in the bathroom or goes to the nurse during lunchtime.

Shyness is a common problem among children, but its results are quite painful and harmful for everyone. The good news is that shyness can be overcome. Now parents can find practical, proven, hands-on solutions for all types of shyness in …


To Sarah


I wish to extend a special thank you to Catherine Peck and Laurie Anderson for their support of this project. I also wish to express my appreciation to my parents, George and Jolene Swallow, for modeling the importance of helping others. To my mentors, Foster Secrest and Donald Kinsley, Ph.D., I express my deepest gratitude. Lastly, thank you Kelly for your unconditional support for all of my endeavors.

Part One


Chapter 1


When your three-year-old's teacher reports that he has rarely spoken during the first weeks of preschool and then says, "But don't worry, he seems perfectly happy," you spend the night worrying anyway.

When you invite a child over to play with your four-year-old daughter, and she refuses to come out of her room and greet the visitor, you are angry, embarrassed, and worried. It has happened before. Then, when her guest leaves, your daughter emerges as her usual, happy self, dancing around the house, full of smiles—and hardly the image of a shy child.

When your daughter reaches the age of twelve and still won't answer an adult's friendly questions directly, looking instead to you to answer for her, you say to yourself, "She should have outgrown this shyness by now." Should you get professional help?

All parents worry about their children, but the parents of shy children take on an extra burden of concern. They fear their children's shyness will hinder personal development and limit their potential for fulfillment. They wonder if they have done something to cause the shyness. Day by day, they agonize along with their children when social situations loom.

It is perfectly normal to worry about your shy child. Shyness can interfere with a child's growth and development, school performance, friendships, and social experiences. Unless issues surrounding shyness are addressed in childhood, they are often carried into adulthood, where they can lead to loneliness, self-doubt, and even despair.

If you are shy yourself, you understand how hard it is to face a world filled with people who seem socially confident. If you are not a shy person, you may be baffled by your child's behavior. If there are siblings in the family who are not shy, it is hard to avoid comparing the children. What can you do?

You are a good parent. You love your child deeply and are trying to find the best way to raise her in a challenging world. You are in good company. There are millions more shy children in the world than you ever dreamed of, and their parents—like you—are seeking guidance and support. The following chapters are designed to offer you guidelines—based on clinical observations of shy children—about what works and what doesn't work when helping children come to terms with shyness.

Successfully parenting a shy child will require you to understand the nature of shyness, to respect your child's individuality, and to provide a bridge between your child's interior self and the outside world. That bridge can be constructed from the coping skills described in this book, and you are the best person to present them to your child. The rewards will be great. Not only will your child gain confidence and courage that will carry him into adulthood, but by working closely with your child and confronting shyness together, you can form a lasting bond that many parents only dream of having with their children.


Parents can help children come to terms with shyness best if they first overcome their own biases and fears about its impact on their children's lives. So let's face those biases and fears squarely.

We cannot ignore the possible consequences of unattended shyness. There is not doubt that it has the potential to harm children in terms of their development. If a shy child is allowed to turn away from the world, if he never learns how to take control of the anxiety that paralyzes him or master the self-consciousness that plagues him, there is a good chance he will grow into a shy adult.

Shy adults who do not have good coping skills are vulnerable. They tend not to excel in the work world. They stay in jobs that are below their skill level and that allow them to escape dealing with other people. They often are loners. They watch others' apparent social grace and wonder why they cannot interact with such ease. Those who marry, often marry the first person with whom they have a significant relationship. Shy adults can even develop anxiety disorders or become severely depressed.

These outcomes are not inevitable, however. The low self-esteem that often accompanies sadness and vulnerability in shy adults is largely the result not of shyness itself but of societal attitudes toward shy behavior, of early parental reactions, and of a spoken or unspoken assumption that there is something abnormal in being shy. By examining these attitudes, reactions, and assumptions, we can arrive at an understanding of what shyness is not, and then get a clear idea of what shyness is.

How Our Culture Views Shyness

American culture celebrates the outspoken, the bold, the brash, and the brave. We honor people who are willing to stand up for themselves, voice their opinions, and bring attention to their causes. We admire celebrities who bask in the limelight, full of self-assurance and confidence.

Shyness is typically viewed as a thing to be conquered. Americans applaud the athlete who performs after crying in fear. We cheer for the actress who confesses to stage fright, but somehow pulls herself together and gives a stellar performance. It is acceptable to be a formerly shy person, as long as you have figured out how to vanquish your native bashfulness.

Gender expectations complicate the American view of shyness. It seems somehow more acceptable for girls to be shy. "Quiet girls are good girls" is a message that we still receive. But shy girls sometimes "fall between the cracks" in school settings and social situations because their teachers and peers see them as self-contained children who do not need attention. Consequently, they are less likely to be called on in school, and, even though their grades may be good, they are less likely to receive demonstrative, public praise.

Ironically, while shyness is more acceptable in girls than in boys, when girls reach adulthood they find that aggressiveness and attention-seeking behavior are culturally desirable in the working world, while the diffidence that kept them on good terms with adults is detrimental to career advancement. In other words, for girls and women, what was cute at age six, may be debilitating at thirty-six.

Shy boys often raise red flags for adults more quickly than girls do because boys are not, culturally speaking, expected to be quiet and self-contained. A boy who does not draw attention to himself is more likely than a girl to have attention thrust upon him by a well-meaning teacher or not-so-well-meaning schoolyard peers. Shy boys are sometimes tormented and bullied. Adult attempts to draw them out, though, often lead to embarrassment and further withdrawal.

Our society values group participation, a willingness to enter in, to get involved. When a member of a group hangs back and seems unwilling to join in an activity, we sometimes assume it is a choice she is making. Shyness is sometimes mislabeled as snobbishness. In fact, while shy people usually feel like they are being left out of a group, they are often surprised if they learn that the people in the in group feel it is they who have been rejected, rather than the other way around.

For the shy child, however, remaining outside the group is rarely a choice at first. Primarily because of inordinate self-consciousness, shy boys and girls simply do not know how to initiate conversation or find their place among their peers. Since it is ultimately more comfortable to refuse to join in than to risk embarrassment by speaking up, it is not uncommon for a shy child to convince herself that she is making a conscious choice to remain aloof, which only adds to the impression that she thinks herself "above the crowd." Thus begins a negative cycle of social exclusion.

Parental Responses to Childhood Shyness

Given the cultural tendency to value outspokenness over reserve, it is easy to see how shyness comes to be seen as an enemy that must be defeated. One way parents respond to this view is to take the attitude that if the kid would just toughen up, he wouldn't be so shy. It is the "throw them in the pool and they'll figure out how to swim" school of thought. Some children do respond to this approach, but most don't. Forcing a child to fight against his natural tendencies can be disastrous.

The opposite parental response is also common, which is to swoop in and rescue the socially awkward child; to speak up for her when she becomes tongue-tied; or to remove her from a situation that is causing her distress. But trying to overprotect a child risks teaching her that she can avoid difficult circumstances, with the consequence that she will never learn the necessary skills to become a competent adult in today's society.

As the parent of a shy child, you do need to monitor your child's comfort level in school and play situations. There will be times when you need to shield him to prevent genuine trauma, and there will be times when you need to leave him to his own devices. By learning to understand what motivates shy behavior, you can accurately gauge which action to take at a given time. All along the way, the most effective action you can take will be to offer your child a clear, realistic picture of himself and his motivations, along with the coping skills he needs to become comfortable dealing with the world within the context of his shy personality.

Shy tendencies are not your child's enemy. Many fine qualities that are as crucial to the smooth functioning of our society as outgoingness and self-advancement go hand in hand with shyness. A keen sense of observation, empathy for others, self-awareness, and a rich interior life are the hallmarks of adults who began life as shy children. By recognizing them as assets, you can help your child learn to use them to advantage.

Shyness Is Not Abnormal

Shy children tend to think they are different from their peers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Studies show that 20 percent of children are born shy and another 20 percent develop shyness before adulthood. With 40 percent of the population identified as shy, it is clear that shyness is not an aberration or a problem faced by a small group. Shyness is a personality style shared by millions.

All children exhibit shyness at some point in their lives. Even the more outgoing baby will occasionally turn away from strangers, and a normally confident child may quake in front of a group. A disruption in family life such as a move or divorce can temporarily cause an ebullient child to become withdrawn. Situational or reactive shyness can be seen as a defense mechanism, a survival technique, a necessary hanging back to watch and wait and make sure the coast is clear before moving on.

A nonshy person may feel shy in unfamiliar surroundings or when confronted by someone who makes him feel inferior. We have a rich vocabulary to describe our feelings in these situations. We get butterflies in the stomach, a frog in the throat, or cold feet. We are in a sweat, in a dither, or in a tizzy. The language is colorful, but the emotions are wretched. It is important to remember that everyone has these feelings at one time or another. Consider the following situations in which shy behavior is normal in children.

Meeting new people. Being forced to interact with people they are not familiar with produces predictable shy behavior in children whether they are genuinely shy or not. Children will cast their eyes to the ground, mumble, hide, or even ignore the new person. It is an awkward moment. As flustered as the parent may feel, the child feels worse. She doesn't know what to say or do, and there is no place to hide.

Speaking in front of a group. Some kids love to perform; they were born to be at center stage. They thrive on the sensation of having all eyes focused on them, of holding the attention of an entire group. There are some shy children who also have this ability, a paradox that will be examined later. (See "Shy Extroverts" in Chapter 2 and "Interest Groups" in Chapter 9.) Yet most children respond to the prospect of having to speak in front of others with alarm. Their throats close. Their hands sweat. Their hearts pound. They imagine the worst things that could happen: They'll trip on the way to the podium; they'll drop their notes; their pants will fall down. It would be funny if it weren't so painful.

A new environment. Places can become comfortable just like an old pair of blue jeans or a blanket. A child who moves in the familiar orbit of home and school, with side trips to friends' houses or the mall, doesn't even stop to think about these places. They just are there. But put a child in an unfamiliar setting and watch what happens. She will look for something familiar or a face she recognizes. She may pull into herself a bit. Many children are wary in new settings. The first day of school, a new house, an unfamiliar bus stop, all are likely to cause shy behavior.

The nonshy child will experience sensations of fear or social reticence briefly. After a few minutes of watching an unfamiliar child stand awkwardly in her foyer, the nonshy child will ask her guest to play and off they'll go. The nonshy child will survive reading her report to the whole class and will probably be comfortable the next time she has to do it. She will adjust to her new playground, or school, or house, quickly making it her own.

Not so for the shy child. For a chronically shy person, the defense mechanism remains in place for a much longer time, and the shy child reacts with wariness in almost every new situation. Often they do not attribute their success in life to their actions. The shy child meets a new person and can be flooded with fear and anxiety that does not go away quickly. Called on to read a report, she is likely to have physical reactions severe enough to make her feel genuinely sick. Adjusting to a new setting can take months. Children don't have the ability to articulate their feelings clearly or explore the rationale behind their emotions. They just turn to their parents with tears in their eyes and feel very, very different.

It is at such times that you, as the parent of a shy child, can remember that shyness does make a child feel different, but shy behavior is not abnormal. It is perfectly ordinary and normal for your child to react the way she does.

Shyness Is a Personality Style

Shyness is not a disorder. Shyness is not a disability. Shyness is not cause for parental despair or societal intolerance.

Tape this to your bathroom mirror: Shyness is a personality style.

Your child is not doomed to a life on the fringes of society. He can develop confidence. He can learn to interpret realistically what others think of him. He can make friends and move comfortably in a social circle. He can do all this, not in spite of his shyness, but within the context of his shy personality.

Your attitude toward shyness affects your child's vision of herself. If you think that shy children are weak characters, your child will perceive herself as weak and undeserving. If you are highly anxious about your child's shyness, she is likely to think that she has some kind of illness or disorder. If, on the other hand, you see shyness as just one part of your child's multifaceted personality, then she will accept it herself and, most important, remain open to your ideas about how to cope.

So let's repeat one more time: Shyness is a personality style.

Shyness is nothing to be afraid of. By understanding the nature of shyness and society's reaction to it, you can begin the task of supporting your shy child as she learns skills that will give her a stronger awareness of herself. You can be instrumental in convincing her that she is capable of taking charge of her actions and reactions. To begin the process, it's time to take a closer look at your child. How can you tell if he or she is truly shy?


Shy children share certain predictable characteristics. If you have never talked about your child's shyness with another parent, do it this week. There is generally a great sense of camaraderie among parents of shy children. It can be tremendously comforting to learn that your child is not alone. Neither are you.

If you think your child is shy, read over the descriptions below. Do any of these stories sound familiar?


Nicole's mother was at her wit's end. It felt as if Nicole had been crying from the minute she was born, with only brief breaks for a nap or nursing. The doctor said the baby had colic, the grandmothers shook their heads, and the neighbors all offered useless advice. By the time Nicole was six months old, she had outgrown the colic, but she still screamed if anyone other than her mother picked her up. As long as it was just the two of them, Nicole would coo, giggle, and behave like any other baby. As soon as they neared other people, Nicole would become quiet. If anyone approached her stroller, Nicole would turn her head to the side, refusing to look at anyone who was not her mother. If the stranger touched her, or stayed in front of the stroller, she would erupt into screams, and her mother would have to take her home, exhausted, confused, and worried. Her baby couldn't even look at another person.

Avoiding eye contact is one way that shy children reduce the tension of being around others. It buffers the intensity of the experience. Because eye contact is so personal, others might interpret a shy person's looking away as a sign of discomfort, shame, fear, dishonesty, or an unwillingness to establish intimacy. In a child, it is usually a signal she is feeling vulnerable. As the story of Nicole illustrates, this kind of avoidance can begin in infancy.


Brandon's parents thought that joining a Cub Scout troop would help him make friends. They hoped that the smaller group of boys and shared interests would make him more comfortable. He didn't show any enthusiasm when he was told about the new activity, but he didn't complain either. Since Brandon had previously absolutely refused to join the soccer team, his parents thought his lack of protest was a good sign.

Months later Brandon's mother received a phone call from another mother in the troop who was looking for information about the wooden race cars the Cub Scouts were making. Brandon's mother was confused; she had never heard about the race cars. The other mother filled her in on the details. All the Scouts were supposed to be working on their pinewood racers at home. A competitive derby was scheduled in two weeks. Didn't Brandon's mother get the notes?

Brandon didn't want to talk about it. He wasn't exactly sure what to do, and he was too uncomfortable to talk to his scoutmaster about it. He hadn't shown his mother the note because he knew she would make him talk to the scoutmaster. Brandon could not explain why talking to the scoutmaster was so hard, he just didn't want to do it. It was easier not to say anything.

When she asked, the scoutmaster told her that Brandon never joined in with the other boys. He sat alone twisting his neckerchief and watched the others. He seemed to enjoy working on badges that he could do alone, but the other boys complained about his lack of cooperation in joint projects.

Brandon's mother was at a total loss. How could Brandon just sit there? Why was it so hard for him to ask for help or participate?

When a child hides or cries in the face of a new situation, you have a shot at identifying the emotion he is wrestling with. But what if he just sits motionless and gives no sign that he's aware of what is going on around him? Have you ever tried to introduce your child to a friend of yours, only to have him ignore both of you entirely? What is he thinking?

It will help to remember that the shy child is always feeling something, and he is probably tuned in to everything. But shy children experience a great deal of "self-talk," a running interior dialogue that can interfere with his immediate response to the outside world. So though it appears to you that your child is sitting there doing nothing, his mind is, in fact, alive with activity. He is imagining all kinds of scenarios, and he is left feeling unsure of which one he should choose. In moments of severe shyness, this interior dialogue can seem to paralyze a child, leading to negative feelings of self-doubt and even shame. (The concept of self-talk and its influence on shyness will be discussed at length in Chapter 2.)


Leeanne was the kind of child that people stared at. She was beautiful, with large sparkling eyes and a shy smile. She was not outgoing, but calmly did what her second-grade teacher asked her to do without complaint. She had one good friend, Emily, with whom she played every day after school. Emily's mother, Barbara, was enchanted by Leeanne. The little girl was neat, organized, and polite.

Leeanne's mother, Sue, called Barbara one evening in a desperate voice. Could they meet for coffee? There was something she had to talk about.

Sue was still near tears when she arrived at the coffee shop. She said she didn't know what to do next, where to turn. She was even thinking of psychotherapy for her eight-year-old. She explained that Leeanne's temper tantrums had been getting worse and worse. Leeanne had always had a short fuse at home, but now the whole family was walking on eggshells. When a crayon broke, she threw the box on the floor and stomped on it. When Sue told her she couldn't watch television until she picked up her clothes, she became defiant and went to bed crying before she would do what she was told.

Barbara was shocked. At her house Leeanne always behaved perfectly. Why would she throw such hideous tantrums at home?

Shy children sometimes experience spontaneous, blind rages that adults interpret as "temper tantrums." Parents are understandably baffled when such strange emotions come over a child who normally appears self-contained and content. What they don't realize is that children who are in school or day care spend most of their waking hours in situations that provoke anxiety for those who are shy. Think for a moment about what it feels like to be terribly anxious: sweaty palms, palpitating heart, nervous jitters. What if you felt like that many times a day, every day? Children tend to act out their emotions.

Once home—and safe—a child who experiences that level of anxiety needs release, and sometimes the smallest incident can set her off, as in the case of Leeanne.


Alexander's parents were increasingly worried. He had learned to speak normally and could be quite verbal if he was in the right mood. Playing alone in his room with his action figures, he talked a mile a minute. But in third grade, he grew more and more reluctant to talk with his parents or anyone else.

His parents had his hearing tested, even though they suspected it would prove nothing. He could hear perfectly, he just didn't like to talk. His teacher reported that he played alone at recess but sometimes sat with one boy at lunch. If she called on him to read an answer from his homework, he would speak. If she asked him his opinion or for an answer during a class discussion, he just shook his head. His grandparents were worried too. Alexander could rarely manage more than "Hello" on the telephone. Was he becoming rebellious and troubled, or was he just shy?

Many children are reluctant to fill parents in on their lives away from home, especially as they get into adolescence. But shy children are notorious from the start for answering in monosyllables when asked direct questions. Sometimes, if they get the idea that their parents are concerned about their level of participation at school, the question "What did you do at school today" may be met with silence meant to hide the fact that they didn't do much.

Short answers might also be a result of the self-talk going on in the shy child's mind. Perhaps she's going over the many possible ways to answer a question and gauging her parents' possible reaction to each. Indecision may cause her to take the easy way out by saying simply, "nope."

Shy children often have talkative siblings who seem to them to take up all the available talking time. The child who needs to consider carefully the words he will choose to speak, gets used to the fact that he might never get a word in edgewise. Many shy children are only too happy to let older, or even younger, more outgoing siblings do all the talking. It lets them off the hook.

Grilling a shy child can lead to balkiness. Asking him how he feels is usually futile, because he may not know, or be able to express how he feels. On the other hand, when you, as parent, ask simple yes-or-no questions of your child, you invite monosyllabic answers. Adults have to walk a fine line here, and more will be said later on strategies to draw out the shy child.



On Sale
Jun 15, 2000
Page Count
288 pages