Shyness isn’t a problem, but we sure treat it as one. Shy kids can be called rude and antisocial especially when their reaction to people getting too close can mean hiding behind legs, sticking out their tongues, making strange faces, or even refusing to speak when spoken to. Since we typically tend to place high value on qualities like independence and social sophistication, the actions attached to shyness, especially in children, remain misunderstood. Shyness isn’t a problem to be fixed, rather it is the part of healthy development meant to ensure our children trust the right people.
Shyness is an instinct that moves a child to resist getting close to people outside their relational village.
Children are not supposed to follow just anyone and must be led by those responsible for them. Shyness closes the door to attachments that compete with a parent for their child’s attention and guidance, and it keeps a child at home where they are safe and will be cared for.
Shyness instincts emerge between 5 and 6 months when they start to display stranger protest and separation anxiety. Before this age they can happily pass from one person to the next until their brain develops the capacity to lock onto the primary attachment who best meets their needs. When a child’s brain decides on a primary attachment, often they will automatically start to resist contact and closeness with others. The only people a child will usually accept at this point are familiar ones to whom their primary attachment has introduced them to.
You might wonder why nature created shyness instincts in the first place. To understand shyness, you have to make sense of how it protects and preserves a child’s greatest need: attachment. Shyness is meant to close the door to relationship with some people, so that it can bring the people you are attached to into better view. Shyness sets up exclusivity in a relationship, allowing it to become deeper and more personalized.
When a young child is shy with other children, parents may worry that their child isn’t making friends or fitting in socially. Young children don’t really need attachments with peers in order to grow; they need deep connections with adults. The pressure for early peer socialization is not in keeping with developmental science, which tells us that children need to first know who they are before they can be a good friend to others.
The focus for young children should be on knowing their own dreams, desires, needs, and preferences before they are made to focus on other people. Shyness with other children in the early years keeps the focus on their development and cuts out competing stories that would prevent them from forming their own.
Labels of shyness usually come from adults who don’t know a child and who are held at a distance by them. My children’s teachers would often remark at how quiet my children were only to be shocked to learn they were loud and boisterous at home. What we fail to realize is that children should be wary of sharing themselves with just anyone – shyness ensures they can trust the people they open up to.
Shyness isn’t a mistake. It’s nature’s way of ensuring that the adults who are responsible for a child have the most influence on them. The biggest mistake we make is trying to talk a shy child out of their instincts, making them uncomfortable with who they are. This is a dangerous message that can override the natural instincts meant to guide them, keep them safe, and allow them to operate with integrity. The real problem is our own impatience with and misunderstanding of shyness.
Well that didn’t go well …
There are many unhelpful responses to shyness – notably ones thatnsuggest there is a problem with a child.
Some people will crash into a shy child with forceful interactions, saying, “Look at me when I’m talking” or “What is the matter with you that you can’t say hi?” When we force a child to engage and don’t honour their shyness instincts, it can lead to pushback or alarm in the child.
With my kids out in public, it was inevitable that a friendly person would say hi to them. Their responses ranged from yelling, “Go away!” to hiding behind my knees, or my eldest would move before her sister to protect her. I often wanted to tell people that while I understood their intentions were friendly, kids are not programmed to warm up to strangers for good reasons. When strangers push a young child’s boundaries, threatening their sense of self, it makes them more resistant to connecting with new people.
When we don’t understand the function of shyness, it can make it hard for other family members who want a relationship with a child. If Grandma or Grandpa hasn’t seen a young child in a while, there can be a strong shy response when they visit. Hurt feelings can ensue with complaints that there are not enough visits happening. The solution is to help them develop relationships rather than disparage their shyness.
The more adversarial or demanding a person becomes for a child to speak up, the more a child will resist talking or sharing their ideas.
This is often the case in the classroom when a child feels coerced to speak up but doesn’t have a solid connection with the people they are speaking to. Shy children are often mislabelled as anxious in these contexts when the truth is they lack a relationship that would bring them out of their shell. It is not a child’s job to build a relationship with an adult – it’s up to the adult to invite the child, patiently, into a relationship with them.
A natural transformation
Just as nature built shyness instincts into kids, it also provided a natural resolution to it. While the instinct to shy away from others may never leave, the simultaneous push towards wanting to relate to others helps to counteract it.
The more a child becomes their own person, the more they form their own ideas and desires, many of which include interacting with others. If they love playing soccer and want to join a team, natural shyness instincts will take a backseat. The more a child loves to act and sing, the more their shyness instincts will be overrun by the desire to be seen and heard on the stage. There are many young children who, despite the instinct to shy away from others, will proclaim that they are ready for school and bravely climb on the bus for that unforgettable first time.
Healthy development is the answer to dealing with shyness instincts. As a child’s dependency on their adults decreases, their willingness to seek the guidance and company of other people increases. The more mature they get, the more they can disagree with their shyness instincts as well. While one part of the child might be inclined to avoid contact, another part longs to reach out and share experiences with others around them. We don’t have to force a child out of their shell – nature has a plan to help them emerge naturally.
Connecting with shy kids
When you understand the purpose of shyness instincts, you are less likely to make matters worse and can use these strategies instead.
Be a matchmaker
The key to matchmaking is to use current attachments to form new ones. New people need to get an introduction to a shy child through someone they know and trust. When we share our childcare responsibilities with others, we cannot leave it up to chance that a relationship between the child and the caretaker will form.
We can foster relationships between a child and an adult by focusing on something they have in common and by having the child see that we like the person we are connecting them to.
When the child notices that the caretaker is endorsed by their trusted adult, their shyness instincts won’t be as necessary and they will be better able to follow and connect with their new person.
Develop transition rituals
When shyness instincts are present, rituals and routines can help a child feel comfortable and settle more easily into someone’s care. When we take time to say hello to their caretaker, allow some time to adjust before leaving, and then head out in a predictable manner, it can help a shy child feel more at ease with their teacher or babysitter, knowing how the day will progress.
A daycare director I work with was delighted at the new pick-up and drop-off area she had renovated in her centre. One staff member was always assigned to greet kids and help with the task of putting their things away, saying hello and goodbye to their parents, and leading the child to their classrooms. Having a special space to orchestrate this transition and a ritual around it was transformational. The staff, parents, and kids all found their rhythm in entering and leaving the centre.
Build bridges and normalize shyness
If a child is reluctant to talk to you then wait some time, chat casually with their parent, and convey that you understand that it just doesn’t feel right to say hello yet.
When I went for a meeting at a colleague’s house one day, he tried to say hello to my young child and engaged her eyes to get a smile. When he was met with a “stay away from me” face, he gently said, “She has lovely shyness instincts in her,” and he let her be. As my daughter saw me engage with my colleague, who wisely bridged the distance by showing acceptance rather than opposition, she naturally let down her guard and followed suit.
Our children need to feel secure with the adults who are responsible for caring for them – this wasn’t meant to be left to chance or move from person to person, but is part of nature’s design to ensure they don’t follow people to whom they are not attached. If our social expectations were in keeping with what children really need, we wouldn’t see shyness as a failing but would recognize it for the important role it plays in allowing them to develop their values, relationships, and sense of self at their own pace and under their trusted caregivers’ watchful eyes.
*This article first appeared in EcoParent Magazine, Summer 2018
Dr. Deborah MacNamara is the Director of Kid’s Best Bet, a family counselling centre, she is on Faculty at the Neufeld Institute and is the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), The Sorry Plane, and Nourished: Connection, food, and caring for our kids (and everyone else we love).