The Shy Spectrum in Kids

Should you be concerned about your child's shyness?

Posted Jun 03, 2013

If your child is shy and quiet, it can be difficult to know whether or not to be concerned. This is because shyness and social anxiety disorder actually exist on a continuum. 

Shy but basically secure and successful. Let's look at Vanessa. She's a sixth-grader who has always been on the quiet side. In fact, every teacher throughout her elementary school years commented that she was “reserved.” She doesn't like giving oral book reports or having to stand in front of the class, but she is able to do so when required. She has a few good friends, although not a very wide circle. She attends parties of kids she knows well, although she frequently turns down invitations for slumber parties.

Her parents accept her shy temperament and have never made a big deal of it. They're both quiet-natured themselves and seem to understand Vanessa. They encourage her to try new things, but they're not overly pushy. She is usually reluctant at first, but with support, she participates in a few extracurricular activities, such as Girl Scouts.

Bottom Line: Probably no reason to be concerned.

Shy but showing some problems. Like Vanessa, Sydney is cautious in many situations. She's always the one on the playground watching the other kids from the perimeter. Sydney talks about being lonely. She wishes she had more friends at school, as well as kids to do things with after school. She doesn’t know how to join in. She lacks social skills and confidence. She tells her parents that she feels like a “loser.”

I first saw Sydney when she was in the third grade. Her parents were sure there was some deep-seated reason why their daughter wasn't more sociable. Sydney’s parents were outgoing, and liked to entertain. When they had other families over, Sydney often wouldn’t come out of her room. They didn’t understand her behavior, and had even punished her for being rude. Sydney realized she wasn't measuring up to her parents’ expectations.  

Sydney's parents were truly concerned about what they perceived as their daughters lack of social interests. They didn't understand that this was part of her temperament – not something she was doing on purpose. I helped her parents learned to accept Sydney’s quiet personality style and not to put as much pressure on her to be different. This went a long way toward helping Sydney feel better about herself. I also worked with Sydney to develop some social skills and some much-needed confidence.

Bottom Line: A little intervention may be all that’s needed.

Specific social anxiety disorder. Rob is in eighth grade and just a little bit shy. He's always had a lot of friends and done well in school. He loves music and has been in the orchestra for years. He's developed into quite a talented violinist, and his orchestra teacher selected him to perform a solo in an upcoming concert. This has made Rob a nervous wreck. The concert isn't for several months, and already Rob is having trouble sleeping, has lost his appetite, and is considering dropping out of the orchestra. 

Rob's reaction may sound extreme, but it’s not uncommon. The anxiety leading up to a feared event is so uncomfortable that it doesn't seem worth it to go through all that misery. Some people have also had a panic attack during a performance situation and vowed never to go through that experience again, even if it means quitting some activity they are good at and enjoy.

Bottom Line: Some help around performance anxiety may be useful.

Mild to moderate generalized social anxiety disorder. Megan is now in high school and has been shy all her life. Her parents are supportive, yet quite a few odds are stacked against Megan. Her family has a strong history of anxiety and depression on both sides. Megan’s father is in the military and they have to move every few years, which has made it difficult for her to make friends. She often doesn’t have anything to do on the weekends and tells her parents she is a “loser.”

Megan also gets lower grades than she’d like in school. Although she is at least of average intelligence, because she always sits in the back of the class and never ask any questions, she sometimes misses important points the teacher is making. She has also lost out on extra credit toward her grade based on class participation.

In addition, Megan suffers from physical symptoms of anxiety. For example, when she's in class, if it appears she may have to take a turn answering questions, she feels as if she's going to have a panic attack. Her heart beats wildly, she feels flushed, and she has difficulty concentrating. She’s sure she won't be able to speak coherently when her turn comes. Sometimes she even feels dizzy and worries she might faint. Of course, fainting in class would prove embarrassing to Megan, and just thinking about that possibility makes matters worse.

Bottom Line: Probably best to intervene now to head off more serious problems. 

Severe generalized social anxiety disorder. The distinctions among the categories are somewhat arbitrary. If Megan’s symptoms progress, she could easily fit into the “severe” category. Here I also include children who have selective mutism (inability to speak in certain situations) or school refusal (inability to go to school due to severe anxiety), as well as kids who have become depressed as a result of their social anxiety. For example, kids like Megan can become isolated, lonely, and even hopeless. Some teens may develop problems with substance abuse.

Bottom Line: Get expert help. You're probably not going to be able to do it alone.

Here are some other questions to ask yourself about your child's reactions to social and performance situations:

  • Do your child's reactions interfere with academic/school functioning?
  • Does your child's anxiety interfere with making and keeping friends?
  • Is your child missing out on fun activities that many children of the same age enjoy? (and that your child would likely enjoy)
  • Do you spend time worrying about your child’s shyness?
  • Is shyness or social anxiety affecting how you feel about your child, or how your child feels about himself or herself?
  • Is your family environment affected by your child's anxiety? Do you tiptoe around, trying not to set him or her off?

If you answered “yes” to several of these questions, you may want to check out some of the resources below.

The Anxiety Disorders Association of America

Case Western Reserve University FEAR Institute. This site offers excellent information and they are often looking for research participants for online studies.

Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you 
from doing all the things in life
 you’d like to.


–Ask, by The Smiths (Read how we named our blog.)

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I also write at The Self-Compassion Project.

I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice. I’ve also been featured in the award-winning PBS documentary, Afraid of People. Greg and I also co-authored Illuminating the Heart: Steps Toward a More Spiritual Marriage.

Photo credits: Pink Sherbet Photography, CC and MeredithB, via flicker