Most children are slow to warm up to strangers and new situations—this is both normal, and important for young ones in learning to assess safety risks of the unknown. Labelling this behaviour as ‘shyness’ is inaccurate, and undermining of a child’s nascent confidence. What true shyness really is, is something more persistent; and can be a symptom of a more concerning issue.
Shyness with adults is fairly typical, and as kids grow older, they’ll learn to feel less intimidated. But wariness of peers is more unusual, and can be problematic.
A child too shy to engage in interaction with other children suffers the risk of isolation and loneliness—as well as not being able to hone social
skills, like empathy, turn-taking in conversation, acceptable expression of feelings, etc., usually mastered in relational contexts.
Shyness with familiar classmates is an indicator that children fear how their peers will treat them or if they will like and accept them.
If their concerns have no historical foundation, it might be something they grow out of as they establish a stronger sense of self. On the other hand, previous exclusion and victimisation could be the motivation behind a child’s shy disposition. Either way, reclusive tendencies make bigger targets for bullying.
Shy boys tend to be targeted more so than girls, likely because gender tropes depict males as assertive, and aggressive. But both shy boys and shy girls can experience social stigmatisation.
Heidi Gazelle, Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology, offers the following advice for parents of children who exhibit shyness:
“Shyness is of concern if it interferes with your child’s or family’s routines or activities, or if your child often appears miserable or complains of being lonely. For instance, if shyness prevents your child from attending other children’s birthday parties or school, or prevents your family from visiting friends, then you should consider seeking help from a child psychologist,” Heidi says.
She also emphasises the fact that children cannot fight against exclusion and victimisation on their own. Says Heidi: “When parents become aware their child is being excluded or victimised by other children at childcare or school, they should contact the childcare centre or school to advocate on their child’s behalf”. (Discuss with your childcare professionals about employing subtle inclusion tactics that won’t highlight the shy child.)
Outside of nursery or school, parents should arrange play dates and encourage participation in extra-murals. Bringing up social fears in family conversation is also important, to come up with constructive ideas together and ease the feeling of isolation.