I recently discovered my five-year-old son crying in a corner at a birthday party. A magic show had just started, and although he was desperate not to miss out, he was even more desperate not to be noticed by the other kids as he joined them. On one hand, I felt sorry for him, but on the other, I was irritated and impatient with his behavior. His reactions and mine are apparently not uncommon. In fact, shyness is considered to be a common developmental behavior amongst toddlers and preschoolers. The difficulty, points out Leah Davies (M.Ed.), is that shyness is not just one emotion. It is a mixture of fear, tension, apprehension and/or embarrassment, and so it is often misunderstood.
Why So Shy?
No one is completely sure of what causes shyness. Experts cite genes, a less-than-firm attachment bond between parent and child, poor acquisition of social skills, or frequent teasing of a child as some of the causes. According to psychologist Cynthia Goins, shy children are simply born shy. "It's a wiring issue," she explains. "Some kids can tolerate certain situations better than others. Shy kids get anxious in them." But temperaments can change. Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan followed a group of inhibited toddlers and a group of fearless toddlers through to their fifth birthdays. At age five, only 20% of them retained their extreme personality style. He also studied a group of infants with shy, timid temperaments from birth. Six months later, some of them appeared to have outgrown their timidity. Why? Kagan observed that the parents of infants that outgrew their own timidity were more likely to help their children learn to cope with small upsets, while the parents of infants who remained timid were more likely to comfort their children through their upsets. In this case, parenting styles, rather than the genes of the parents, were responsible for the degree of the children’s shyness.
How do you know if your child is shy? “Symptoms of shyness may include gaze aversion, a soft tone of voice, and/or hesitant or trembling speech,” says Davies. Shy children seem to lack confidence and are self-conscious, especially in new surroundings, or when they are the center of attention. Unless shyness is severe enough to interfere with your child's daily activities, it’s probably not a problem.
"Shyness is about novelty," says psychologist Dr. Cynthia Goins. "Kids who actively withdraw in familiar places, or become ill or depressed may require professional intervention.” Other signs of severe shyness may include the inability to interact with people other than close friends and family, excessive clinging or crying when in the company of others.
“Some physicians will prescribe a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor like Prozac for cases of severe shyness characterized as selective mutism or social anxiety disorder,” confirms clinical psychologist John Malouff, “but medication of children should be a last resort because of the unknowns about long-term side effects.”
It’s important to realize that being shy is not necessarily negative. Many shy children exhibit an ability to think for themselves, and to please others. "The problem lies in the fact that shy children may be perceived as unfriendly or disinterested," explains Philip G. Zimbardo, co-author of The Shy Child, and author of Shyness. A shy temperament can keep children from having friendships, and shy children miss out on many opportunities simply because they are too afraid to speak. Their peers avoiding them can hamper their social development and even lead to their becoming lonely and depressed.