Must-read – and scientifically backed – advice for parents of shy kids
Shy kids

If you’re the parent of a timid wallflower who shrinks from social contact, it’s possible he or she is among the one in five kids born genetically predisposed to being ‘behaviour-inhibited’ - in other words, shy.

But before you start blaming your genes, there’s some good news - your parenting style can help them.

Those research boffins have been at it again, conducting experiments and crunching numbers, and what this latest study, from the University of Maryland in the US, has found is that while shy littlies are at an increased risk of developing an anxiety disorder as teens, how they connect with their parents in the early years can stymie that.

The study found that children who were insecurely attached to their parents as infants and shy throughout their childhood, were more likely to report higher levels of anxiety in social situations as teens.

But on the flipside parents can work to develop that secure attachment by being nurturing and responsive to a child’s distress, lead author Erin Lewis-Morrarty – a child development researcher told Live Science.

What is secure attachment?

A secure attachment is described in the article as a warm, nurturing relationship in which kids feel confident to explore when their mum or dad is around, and also feel comfortable seeking reassurance from them when upset.

“For those kids that do show inhibition across many years, having a secure attachment could be really protective,” says Lewis-Morrarty

Why are some kids shy in the first place?

The study claims that about 15 to 20 percent of children have a temperament that researchers call ‘behavioural inhibition’, which according to Dr Bernardo Carducci - psychology professor and director of the Shyness Research Institute in the US - is slightly different to being simply shy.

Shyness involves ‘a sense of self’ which does not develop until about 18-months-old, according to Dr Carducci in a blog post for the US website Psychology Today.

“Inhibited temperament is characterised by excessive physiological and behavioural reactions to environmental stimulation. For example, infants born with an inhibited temperament will kick their legs and feet more, display a higher heart rate and cry longer and louder when exposed to an unpleasant noise, such a balloon popping, ” he writes.

“Inhibited children at two years of age might be more likely to hide behind their parent’s legs when a stranger enters their play area, and engage in more isolated play at seven years of age than uninhibited children.

“Thus, what can start happening is that such inhibited behaviour begins to be labelled as ‘shyness’ by parents, teachers and acquaintances.”

social anxiety, shy at school


But, if your kid is shy – how can you help?

Kidspot’s Dr Justin Coulson also suggests that we don’t make too big a deal about our kids being shy.

“The more your child feels that you are trying to push them into being more sociable, outgoing and involved, the more likely it is that they’ll push away from you. They’ll feel that there is something wrong with them and that you disapprove, and then they may withdraw even more due to their feelings of discomfort. Instead, love them, be patient with them, talk with them and continue to give them gentle opportunities to grow and develop.”

  • Give plenty of warning to your child when changes are coming. This can help them prepare mentally for what is about to happen. “In five minutes we’re off to preschool.”
  • Talk about feelings. See if you can identify the feelings your child is experiencing in relation to being around other people. For example, “You seemed to feel a bit anxious when we went to visit the doctor/teacher/friend/whoever.” Once you know you’ve got the emotion they were feeling correct, you can let them know those feelings are normal and are OK.
  • Describe what you see as they successfully navigate these difficult situations. “I saw you were feeling nervous, but then you went and talked to your friend.” Or, “You were feeling uncomfortable, but then you joined in the dancing and you seemed to have fun.” As they hear your description, you can ask them how it made them feel. The focus should be on your child beginning to acknowledge that they can experience success and overcome these challenges.
  • Continue to expose them to novel situations and new people. Give warnings, communicate clearly, and accentuate and describe what they do well. (Avoid praising them, and instead rely on your descriptions of what you saw and THIER evaluations of whether or not they did that in a way that made them feel good.)
  • Respect their feelings. If you sense that your child is genuinely uncomfortable (for example, if they start to cry or become highly aroused) it may be best to allow them to withdraw from the situation and compose themself. As you communicate with them, you’ll discover a pattern.

Some books to read with your shy child

Psychologist – and dad to a shy child himself - Dr John Malouff also endorses taking a gentle approach when it comes to helping your shy child along the way.

“With patience and a persistent effort from parents, children will more often than not overcome their shyness,” Dr Malouff says. “But it’s important that parents don’t expect too much too quickly but appreciate and praise little improvements, a little at a time.”

Dr Malouff has suggested a couple of great books for you to read with your shy little one.

This article was written by Rebel Wylie for and has been adapted for

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