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Is it normal for my child to be shy?

In Western cultures it often seems that extroverted and outgoing children are more highly regarded than their more introverted and shy peers. In other parts of the world there is a greater appreciation of quieter, thoughtful, self-contained children and adults.

There is a spectrum of temperament from extreme introversion and shyness to extreme extroversion. Indeed, psychologists have reported differences in shyness/timidity and boldness in babies as young as three months old. These differences seem fairly hardwired and you should learn to understand and respect your baby’s temperament.

If you have a shy child there are lots of things you can do to help them feel more confident, sociable and happy.

The science of shyness

Studies have shown that timid and shy children appear to have a more sensitive amygdala (an ancient part of the brain that tells us we are in danger). These children will often be easy startled by loud noises, new situations and even strong smells. Their bolder peers are not necessarily braver, they simply don’t respond strongly to the same stimuli.

Tips for encouraging your shy child

  • From about nine months old your baby began to look to you to guide their behaviour and feelings – this is called social referencing. If you smile and are calm and warm in social situations it will reassure your shy toddler. Every time they are brave and approach other children to play, praise them.
  • When you are out shopping, encourage them to hand over the money and say thank you for the change. It’s all good practice for talking to new people.
  • If your shy toddler dislikes loud ‘rhyme time’ with musical instruments it might be that the noise is just too loud and over-stimulating for them. Instead, choose a quieter organised activity such as painting, swimming, playing at a park or yoga.
  • Shy children often find it easier to play with other children on their home turf at first, so arrange play dates at home. Your child will feel more confident and their new friend will probably be a little quieter as they are away from home.
  • The more positive experiences that your child has with other children the more they will begin to find experiences with peers and new friends easier.

Helping your shy pre-schooler settle in to nursery

  • If your child is used to being with you at home, a busy nursery will be a very intense environment to deal with. Look around for a small, calm nursery that will suit their quieter temperament.
  • When you are settling your child in at a nursery it’s a good idea to start with very short sessions. Stay and play and then say you are going to see their teacher to fill in a form and will be back in five minutes. When you return you can stay on the periphery if your child is settled and playing, or explore the new toys with them if they gravitate straight to you on your return.
  • Your child needs the opportunity to bond with their key worker as they will become their ‘attachment figure’ while at nursery. Let the key worker know that your child is shy and worried – they will be very used to settling in and reassuring shy children. Every time they arrive at preschool, the key worker can come to them and welcome them gently. As they get used to the new environment and bond with their key worker, they will begin to feel more reassured and safe without you.
  • If your shy toddler is starting nursery it may help to take along their favourite teddy bear to keep with them in the early days. This is a comforting prop for times when they are missing you or feeling nervous.
  • Again, try to get to know the other children at the nursery and ask to be introduced to their parents (even if you are shy yourself!). That way you can quickly arrange some play dates at your house so your child gets to play with their new nursery friends in familiar surroundings.