Shy children: What’s normal and what you can do

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Children’s birthday parties typically offer a bird’s-eye view of the broad spectrum of human temperaments. You’ll likely see socially bold kids, vying to be first in line for the piñata; socially comfortable yet milder-mannered kids, who prefer to exuberantly observe the piñata mayhem; and socially reticent children, who hang way back and mutely shake their heads when concerned grown-ups encourage them to join in the “fun.” If you’re a parent of a kid in the third camp, you might be concerned. After all, every kid loves a birthday bash filled with cake and noise and flying candy, right?

Not necessarily. The truth is that your child’s shyness may be temporary or he might never be the life of the party, but that doesn’t mean he has social anxiety disorder.

“People come into the world wired differently. It’s not pathological to be shy,” says Dr. Amy E. Wilson, a Charlottesville clinical psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavioral interventions for anxiety-related disorders.

Wilson explains that shyness only becomes a treatable condition when it results in avoidance of normal social functioning or interferes with social or emotional development.

Exposure needed for social development and competence

Wilson says it’s important for children to develop normal social skills through regular social interaction. That means parents of shyer kids may need to gradually expose their kids to uncomfortable situations.

“You don’t want to push them so far that they have a negative experience,” says Wilson, “but anxiety isn’t dangerous, and having kids work through their fears and get to the other side is very valuable.”

According to Wilson, many parents mistakenly compensate for shy children in the spirit of easing the anxiety, but that only perpetuates the shyness or seeds an even bigger problem through social avoidance. 

“I know of very competent teenagers whose parents still order for them at restaurants,” she says.

When further help is warranted

Some shy kids may always be slower to warm up in social situations, and that’s O.K. as long as they can handle normative social situations without too much discomfort. If, however, your child can’t seem to deal with day-to-day social interactions such as school, it may be time to seek outside help. A first step might be to consult a school counselor, who will be trained to evaluate your child’s social development and offer an action plan.

First steps

Desensitize shy kids through an activity they already enjoy

“A lot of kids work through their shyness when they are motivated to do something that requires social interaction,” says Dr. Amy E. Wilson. Summer classes and camps can be great for this, but don’t throw them into the deep end of the pool, so to speak, too fast. Also don’t hold their hands the entire time, she advises.

Arts and crafts lessons or science and engineering activities side-by-side with other children would allow for gradual social interaction. Some options:

Bricks 4 Kidz Lego-building activities

Curry School of Education, the Saturday and Summer Enrichment Program for gifted students

Les Fabriques Sewing Workshops and Camp Stitch

McGuffey Art Center Classes and Camps for Kids and Teens

A group physical activity that stresses health, confidence-building and other life skills would provide more supportive incremental socialization than a competitive team. For example:

Bend Yoga

The Little Gym

SuperStarters Tennis & Teamwork

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