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There’s Nothing Wrong With “Shy”

Revisiting shyness in young children after the pandemic.

Key points

  • Many children are reluctant to “resocialize” after the pandemic.
  • Shyness is not a weakness, a vulnerability, or an inherent problem; it's a category of normal social behavior.
  • Support children in resocializing at their own pace; tip the scales in the direction of helping them practice.

Sam’s family was spending a week of their summer vacation with cousins at their lake house. This was the first time they had returned to this beloved retreat since pandemic-related restrictions were eased.

Sam was too young to remember previous encounters with his (fraternal) twin cousins, Eli and Ellen, but he was so excited on arrival that he exploded out of the car to join them on the beach. Ellen hugged him without bothering with “hello,” while Eli hung back, looking at him silently from a distance.

Sam’s parents weren’t surprised, having previously heard descriptions of the twins’ contrasting temperaments. Sam, however, was bewildered and asked his dad later, “Does Eli like me?” Sam’s dad, having grown up being called “shy” because of the reserved nature of his own temperament, had long ago stopped using the word “shy” because he’d felt the label described “something that I shouldn’t be.” Instead, he told Sam that Eli would play with him, “once he took time to figure out who you are, Sam, and that you can be fun and nice to play with.”

We revisit the issue of shyness in this post because I have heard from so many parents some version of “my child came out of COVID shy, which is not the way they went in,” referencing a general reluctance to “resocialize” after the pandemic. Child development experts and preschool teachers across the country have seen a similar trend. My best advice is to support children in re-socializing at their own pace. Support is the right word here—not push. Tip the scales in the direction of helping them practice. But what if your child was “shy” before the pandemic’s social deprivation?

To clarify: Being shy is not a weakness, a vulnerability, marker of poor self-regard, or an inherent problem. It is a category of normal social behavior and/or temperament shared with about a third of one’s peers. Often, it is accompanied by enviable reflective capacities, patience, and companionable politeness. It can make school a complicated venture, given the prevailing uber-importance of more extroverted social competencies. But teachers and other children often see “shy” kids as more cooperative and with better self-control than their more boisterous peers.

I was taught—inaccurately, given my subsequent experience with kids and families—that, since shyness was a temperament, it did not change much over the lifespan, as parents couldn’t do much to alter a personality trait. But this not a nature vs. nurture dilemma; it’s how we nurture nature that matters at the end of the day. Here are some things parents can do to help “shy” kids feel more comfortable in their own skins:

  • Follow Sam’s dad’s advice and avoid the label. “Nervous” is not helpful, either. Reserved, thoughtful, patient, old soul, private, and reflective are all respectful descriptions without the burden of shame, embarrassment, or deficiency.
  • Let them know that you know they need to take their time in social situations, and that is OK.
  • Avoid the impulse to protect or shield them from situations that could highlight their “shyness.” Support them with your understanding and expectation that they will figure out when and how to “get in the game.” Avoiding the “game” sends the message that they, in truth, need protection and can’t handle joining in.
  • With your child in tow, model joining groups yourself where there are strangers. Make eye contact, smile, introduce yourself, and even seek assistance (for example, asking for directions), and say, “Thank you.”
  • Read stories that address topics such as being a bit fearful of others, self-confidence, empathy, and how to make friends. Lee Scott, chairperson of The Goddard School’s Educational Advisory Board, recommends the following: The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig; The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld; Franklin’s New Friend by Paulette Bourgeois; Too Shy for Show-and-Tell by Beth Bracken; and Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry.

By providing guidance and support, parents can help their “shy” child stay comfortable and ultimately find their way in the post-pandemic world.

More from Kyle D. Pruett M.D.
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