What to Do with a Shy Child?

Each child is unique and you don’t need to be a trained psychologist to figure this one out. Sally from next door is a sweet, obedient child who does everything her parents ask her. Her best friend Jenny who lives down the block is a feisty little one who still throws tantrums every now and then. So what gives?

what makes a child shy

In the early 1950s, Alexander Thomas, Stella Chess, Herbert G. Birch, Margaret Hertzig and Sam Korn began the classic New York Longitudinal study regarding infant temperament. They too were curious, especially since babies also seem to exhibit varying tendencies.

Why did some babies cry constantly while others were easily pacified? Why do some babies smile at everyone and others turn away even in the presence of relatives they have already met before?

They studied basic traits of babies. These included activity levels, adaptability, sensitivity threshold, persistence or attention span and intensity of emotional response among others. Based on these traits, they found that the babies’ temperaments could be grouped into three broad categories: easy or flexible, difficult or feisty, and slow-to-warm-up or fearful.

Most children have some level of intensity on several temperaments, but one will usually dominate. So what should you do when you have an inhibited or even a feisty child?

The good news is that parents can regulate their children’s temperament. Take note that the word is regulate and not change. The tendencies will always be there. The most a parent can do is teach self-regulation and self-comforting abilities as babies grow up.

With regard to regulating children’s innate temperaments, Thomas and company’s theory introduces the concept of “goodness of fit”. Goodness of fit is simply defined as the compatibility between a child’s temperament and the environment like parenting style.

Parents also need to get a clear picture of their own temperament and pinpoint areas where conflicts with their child arise due to temperament clashing. When there is temperament friction between parent and child, it is more reasonable to expect that the parent will make the first move to adapt.

When a parent or caregiver understands the child’s temperament, he or she can organize the environment so that “goodness of fit” happens.

This article will focus on the slow-to-warm up or fearful children. Some people call them shy, others call them introverts. So what “goodness of fit” can parents do to help these types of children?

What to Do with a Shy Child

Characteristics of Slow-to-Warm up Children

First, let’s delve deeper into the characteristics of these slow-to-warm up children. Early in life slow-to-warm-up children can be unflatteringly labeled as: shy, reserved, timid, fearful, picky, whiny, slow-poke, bashful, anxious, scaredy-cat, touchy, stubborn, delayed, babyish, or backward.

These labels typecast children into stereotypes that mask and even stunt their true abilities. When attitudes behind labels change, children can be taught to adapt well.

Overall, slow-to-warm-up kids are usually only shy or disoriented at first. And they aren’t fearful – they’re judicious. Slow-to-warm-up kids don’t leap before they have thought things through; they stand back, look, and listen. Once they establish a rapport with people and trust in a situation’s safety, they can be as outgoing, friendly, creative, and adventurous as the next child.

“Goodness of Fit” Strategies

Below are three strategies for being the affirming and responsive parent that slow-to-warm-up kids need as they mature to their full potential.

#1: Observe and learn

Look for patterns in your child’s behavior:

Times. Are there certain times of day that are harder for your child to make transitions? Are mornings or evenings more difficult for her? Or when she’s hungry or tired?

Places. Is your child slow to warm up in all settings, or are some more difficult to adjust to than others? For example, some children find it easier to visit another person’s home but are stressed in more busy, crowded places (the mall, a street festival, an amusement park).

People. Are there people your child is more cautious with than others? Is he more comfortable with adults or children? Every child is different. For instance, one normally shy child who clung to her parents whenever meeting a new person immediately fell in love with her new pediatrician who looked a bit like her adored grandmother. You never can tell!

Stimulation. Some children have a tougher time joining in an activity when there is a lot of stimulation: sounds, lights, movement, and so on. A birthday party at a children’s gym—with music blasting, lots of people and activity, in bare feet and touching lots of new textures—might be very overwhelming for a cautious child. In fact, some research has found that being sensitive to textures and sounds is associated with a more fearful temperament.

#2: Respond in a sensitive and thoughtful way based on your best understanding of the behavior

Let’ say that your young toddler has a difficult time separating at a babysitter’s home or at child care. Which do you think is a better response from you?

“Why can’t you be like your friend Patty there? Her mom has already gone and she’s not crying. You’ll be fine.”


“It must be hard for you to say good-bye. You don’t like it when daddy leaves. I understand. Saying good-bye is hard.”

It’s very important you acknowledge your child’s feelings. This lets her know you understand her. Acknowledging what she feels, without negative judgment, helps her to feel good about herself.

Giving her the impression that there is something wrong with her will just make her feel worse about herself, and therefore, more insecure. Empathizing with your child will also help her develop empathy, which will enhance her social skills and help him connect with others.

dealing with a shy child

#3: Help your child enjoy social interaction and learn social skills through everyday experiences

Make sure your child knows you love and accept her. Respect her needs, when you can. For example, if she doesn’t like being in big groups, keep her birthdays small with only a few close friends instead of that big bash with 15 kids and a magician.

Avoid labels. Telling someone who is slow to warm up to “try not to be so shy” is like saying, “Try not to be yourself.”

Look for opportunities to build your child’s self-confidence and ability to assert himself. Notice your child’s interests, successes, skills, and milestones. Make time to play together doing things your child enjoys.

Provide comfortable opportunities for developing social skills. These opportunities might include playtime with one or two other children. If your child is in child care, ask your child’s caregiver for recommendations of children who would be well matched with your child.

Make time for your child to warm up to new caregivers. Your child may never be the kid who runs right into the babysitter’s arms as you are going out the door. So plan ahead and make sure you have enough time to help your child get acquainted and comfortable with the caregiver.

Give notice about new people, events, and places. Let your child know that her Uncle Bob is coming to visit, her friend’s birthday is later that afternoon at the park, or she is moving to the Bluebirds room at child care next week. Letting her know what to expect gives your child a sense of control, which can reduce her anxiety.

Put what you think your child is feeling into words. “You are watching Marco build the castle with blocks. Want to see if we can join in?”

Provide regular opportunities for social interaction in your home. Getting together with family and friends gives children an opportunity to practice social skills in a familiar, safe setting.

Here are some good books that will help children say goodbye to shyness.



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