Shyness in children can be viewed negatively, especially in cultures that value gregariousness and extroversion. What isn’t well understood is that shyness is an attachment instinct that prevents children from being led by people outside of their village of connection. Shyness isn’t often celebrated nor seen as part of nature’s design to ensure that a child’s closest attachments will have the most influence over them.
The shyness instinct can makes its first appearance in a 6 to 7 month old child as stranger protest if development is ideal. Instead of being easily passed from person to person, a baby will start to show clear preferences for their favourite people, and greater signs of upset when separated from them. Attachment to others becomes highly polarized for a child with the world splitting into those they seek to be close to as well as those they shy away from. In other words, shyness is not a deficit in a child but a strategic move on nature’s part to ensure a child stays close to the people that are responsible for them (1).
Shyness is often also confused with social anxiety – fear or avoidance of social or interpersonal situations. The alarm experienced with social anxiety is intense, chronic, pervasive, and must exist for over a 6-month period in order to be diagnosed. Only ½ of the people diagnosed with social anxiety claim they are shy. Shyness on the other hand is viewed as a personality characteristic that varies in intensity among individuals. One can be shy but not be bothered by it (2).
Why Are Some Kids More Shy Than Others?
Research suggests there is a genetic predisposition for shyness instincts to be stronger in some children in comparison to others. After 30 years of research Jerome Kagan, a Harvard psychologist discovered temperamental differences in a child’s response to their world as young as 4 months old. Approximately 15 to 20% of children are born with more inhibited temperaments and demonstrate more reactivity to their environments giving rise to stronger shyness responses. As babies they were more upset by loud noises, had greater hand and leg activity, and displayed a higher heart rate in comparison to other children. By the age of two these children were more likely to hide behind a parent’s leg when a stranger entered their play area and were more likely to engage in solitary play by the age of seven. These children were more likely to be labeled as shy by their parents and teachers but only ¼ of them still demonstrated characteristics associated with shyness in adulthood (3).
This research has resonated with my experience as a parent in caring for my two very shy children. When they were 4 and 2 years of age I was in a store grocery shopping when a friendly older lady came up to us and smiled at them. She proceeded to ask them their names, telling them they were very cute and lovely. My eldest immediately stuck out her tongue while the youngest screamed as they both ran to hide behind my legs. The lady looked at me stunned and said, “Oh my that wasn’t very nice!” I turned to her and replied, “they are shy and don’t respond to strangers,” while proceeding to comfort my children. As I reflected on the incident later, there was part of me that wished I had said: “Children come with natural instincts to shy away from people that are not in their attachment village and have not been sanctioned by their closest attachments. There is nothing wrong with shy children but with a society that expects children to follow, be gregarious, talkative, and friendly with people they do not know.”
What is the Answer to Shyness?
Over the years I have been told at most parent and teacher interviews that my children are too quiet or shy in the classroom. Teachers typically request that I ask my children to speak up more and encourage them to put up their hand to answer questions. I am typically told that the remedy to their shyness, (as if it were a problem in the first place), is for them to have more playdates with their peers. I once joked with my daughter’s teacher that if she came over for a playdate I was sure it would help her settle into the new school year.
Parents of children with strong shyness instincts may compare their kids with their more gregarious same-aged counterparts. A shy child can appear less outgoing and more apprehensive in engaging in new situations. They may prefer to hang back and observe the field as well as withdraw when feeling threatened or overwhelmed. Many parents of shy kids tell me they wish their child would engage more and be less stirred up with angst as they struggle with separation anxiety with each new school year. As you might imagine, parents of shy kids remember being painfully shy themselves and don’t wish the same for their own children.
The good news is there is a natural solution to shyness. As Kagan argues, biology is not destiny. While some kids have a stronger genetic predisposition to shyness, healthy development as separate, social, and adaptive being is the ultimate answer to growing out of it. In truth, the shyness instincts don’t ever leave us, only the need to operate out of them as much.
The answer is to work at creating the conditions for healthy growth to unfold in a child. This requires deep attachments with adults and the freedom to play. The combination of rest and play will create an internal force in a child to become one’s own person and to express oneself on the world. By the time they are in grade 4 and 5 (approximately age 9 and 10), a shy child may seem to take a leap forward and become more adventurous. The more developed their ideas, meanings, intentions, interests, preferences, and desires have become, the more there is a desire to step into the world with these guiding them.
At the end of grade 4, one of my daughter’s announced to me that she wanted to go to a summer camp for two weeks full time, where she didn’t know anyone, and that involved being part of a play and producing it. At the end of two weeks I sat in the dark auditorium and watched her sing and dance across the stage, full of life. The same shy child that used to yell at strangers to stop looking at her at 18 months was now smiling and bursting with joy in front of over 200 strangers. While I was moved to tears she seemed to stand a little taller that day, more confident, more emergent, and assured that venturing outside her comfort zone had been worth the effort.
How Can We Support the Shy Child?
When a child operates out of their shyness instincts it is a cue to their adults to consider the context. Are they are attached to the people they are being left with? Do they consider these people to be part of their attachment village? Shyness instincts are present in every child and preserve the rightful place of their closest attachments to lead them. What every child needs when they are shy is an adult who can make sense of them and to consider the following strategies.
1. Non-shaming approach – When a child feels there is something wrong with who they are for not being more gregarious or engaged it can foster a sense of shame. A non-shaming approach might require giving them time to warm up and to settle into their new surroundings. It would mean not pushing them, but supporting them in taking steps forward when they are ready. There were few birthday parties that we attended when my children were young that didn’t require sitting on my lap for awhile before they felt comfortable to engage with other partygoers.
2. Let them play – The more developed the self becomes, the more force there is to express oneself and push through the instinct to shy away. Selfhood is cultivated in hours spent in play where a child is free to explore, discover, and hear echoes of who they are resonate in the world around them. In order to play kids needs spaces that are free of structured activities, schooling and instruction, devices that entertain or inform, and the pressure to perform or produce outcomes. Children are free to play when their hunger for contact and closeness is satiated and they can take for granted their adults will care for them. It will also help if adults have patience to draw out the shy child and listen to them as they report back on the world they see. Far too often the shy child is glossed over with the more talkative children grabbing adult attention. Taking the time to notice and attend to the quiet kids who also have rich internal worlds helps forward their individuation as separate beings.
3. Match-make them to adults in their attachment village – Matchmaking is an attachment ritual that serves to introduce a child to the adults in their village that will care for them. Parents need to take the lead in cultivating relationships between their children and grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers, coaches, to dentists and doctors. When the dentist told my young daughter to open her mouth he was met with her steely eyes, pursed lips, and arms crossed in an act of refusal. I told her the dentist was someone Mommy liked and had asked for help in caring for her teeth. I told her to open her mouth for him so that he could make her teeth clean and she obeyed, albeit hesitantly. Children need to feel that there is an invisible matrix of adults surrounding them for the purpose of caretaking but it is their parents that must be the ones to forge ahead in building this village for them.
Shyness is a natural attachment instinct that is often treated as a deficit in a child rather than a strategic move on nature’s part to keep them attached to their caretakers. While the instinct to shy away from others never leaves us, the conflict we feel about this, along with healthy growth and development are the ultimate answers to being able to express ourselves more fully. If we truly want to help our kids with their shyness, we would start by not shaming them for something that is natural. Nature has an answer if we are patient and support the conditions for good growth.
(1) Neufeld, G. (2013). Making Sense of Kids Course, Neufeld Institute, Vancouver, BC, Canada, http://www.neufeldinstitute.org.
(2) Burstein M, Ameli-Grillon L, Merikangas KR. Shyness versus social phobia in US youth. Pediatrics. 2011;128:917-925. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51721428_Shyness_Versus_Social_Phobia_in_US_Youth
Heiser NA, Turner SM, Beidel DC, et al. Differentiating social phobia from shyness. Journal of Anxiety Disorders. 2009;23:469-476. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2692184/
(3) Kagan, J. (1994). The nature of the child. New York: Basic Books.
Kagan J, Reznick JS, Snidman N, Gibbons J, Johnson MO. Childhood derivatives of inhibition and lack of inhibition to the unfamiliar. Child Development. 1988 Dec;59(6):1580-9. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3208569
Kuo, R. (March 4, 1991). Psychologist finds shyness inherited, but not permanent. The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved from http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1991/3/4/psychologist-finds-shyness-inherited-but-not/
Copyright 2016 Dr. Deborah MacNamara is on faculty at the Neufeld Institute, in private practice supporting families, and author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). Please see www.macnamara.wpengine.com for more information.