Not all introverted kids are shy, but many of them do experience shyness.
I was always a shy kid. I felt comfortable talking to friends I knew well or adults I trusted, like teachers, but I froze up in group settings or with new people. Those situations made me feel scared and awkward, and I would actually get worse at things I was good at, like catching a ball.
Over time, my shyness seemed to grow in my mind, like it was a part of who I was, and I would never be the “popular” or “fun” kid. I was so confident in myself — until I needed to interact with others.
It wasn’t until much later in life that I decided to try to overcome my shyness, even though I’m an introvert. It was hard, but it was also one of the biggest confidence-boosters of my life. I remember wishing that I had done that earlier, as an introverted kid. But kids often don’t know how to take on self-development projects — they need adults to show them.
As a parent, that means there are two truths you need to know about your shy child: First, developing confidence has big benefits for shy kids, even introverts. Second, go easy on them — shyness is about comfort and confidence, and your child needs your support and encouragement more than anything else.
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The Difference Between Shyness and Introversion
First off, let’s get our facts straight: Not all introverts are shy, and shyness is not the same thing as being an introvert. However, many introverts do experience shyness. Introversion refers to an innate part of your temperament — your orientation toward the world and how you interact with it. People who are introverts find alone time refreshing and energizing, and can easily enjoy solo pursuits. By contrast, they find social time draining, even if they are enjoying it.
On the other hand, shyness is an emotion. It’s a feeling of being nervous, awkward, or uncomfortable around other people — especially in large groups or with people you don’t know. For children, shyness usually comes out with adults or large group situations, like in the classroom, on the playground, at parties or events, and in public spaces. Many shy children will not feel shy at all around their parents, their close friends, or adults they know well. However, add an audience or a stranger to the setting, and shyness comes right back.
In effect, shyness becomes a confidence issue, as well as a comfort issue: Since the child feels nervous in front of others, they lack the confidence to speak or act in those settings. They can face real challenges.
The Challenges of Being Shy
According to clinical psychologist Forrest Talley, shyness can pose challenges for children. For example, Talley says that shyness may be linked to increased bullying, with shy kids getting picked on more. Shy children are also more likely to experience struggles with sadness, anxiety, and giving in to peer pressure. It’s hard to say whether these effects are part of shyness itself, or whether they are caused by the increased bullying — it’s easy to imagine why kids who are bullied may feel sad or become push-overs to group opinion.
Just as concerning, Talley says, are the effects that stay with the child into adulthood. Childhood experiences play a role in shaping the habits you use for life, including how you cope with challenges and your reactions to social situations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, former shy kids may remain socially withdrawn in adulthood and feel insecure. Talley says that they may also fail to advance as far in their careers, especially if they experienced significant bullying.
However, Talley and other experts say that parents have a lot of power to help their shy child build confidence. Here are six important steps you can use to do that.
6 Steps to Help Your Shy, Introverted Child Build Confidence
1. Stop labeling them shy.
One mistake adults make with their introverted child is to refer to them as “shy.” (Think of all the times your child stayed quiet while meeting someone and you apologetically said, “They’re a little shy.”)
While this is natural, in time, it may start to stick: “Shy” becomes part of who they are, and they accept it. In reality, shyness is an emotion — something temporary — and it can go away as a child learns key skills and builds confidence, much as they learn to stop wetting the bed as they master using the toilet.
Instead, try saying, “Oh, looks like they don’t feel like talking right now,” or “(Name) likes to listen for a bit before joining the conversation.”
2. Help them practice talking to adults.
Talley says that one of the best ways to build your shy child’s confidence is by helping them act as if they’re already confident. That means practicing some key skills with them, like having them introduce themselves to adults.
To do so, Talley recommends roleplaying with your child. First, you’re going to explain that from now on when they meet a new adult (such as a friend you introduce them to), they’re going to look them in the eyes and say, “Hi, it’s nice to meet you.” Then practice doing that with them. You may even tell them they’re going to walk into the room and pretend to be an adult, and you’ll be the kid, so you can act out the introduction together. Do this a few times (and feel free to get goofy with it). Talley says that once your child seems bored of repeating it, it’s probably been ingrained enough to try in the real world.
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3. Shift small social responsibilities onto them.
Similarly, start to shift other small social tasks to your child. For example, when taking the family to a restaurant, it’s natural for parents to place everyone’s order. Instead, tell your child that they’re going to order their own food. You can help them talk through how to do that, and let them know the server may have a question or two (“Do you want fruit or chips with your kids meal?”).
You can also give them goals that they can carry out without you. For example, ask them to raise their hand and speak in class at least once during the school day. When they come home, you can ask them what they raised their hand for and talk about how it went. Your excitement and interest about the encounter may be all they need to start feeling good about it.
Of course, reassure them that practice makes perfect if they need a confidence boost.
4. Show them how to do things for themselves.
In general, building independence also builds confidence. Montessori teacher Simone Davies recommends showing your child how to do more tasks for themselves. Depending on their age, that could mean wiping a spill, taking their plates to the kitchen, dressing themselves, or even making a meal.
Granted, your child won’t always do a good job at these things, especially if they’re younger (when my two-year-old helps “clean up” a spill, it’s more like “spreading it around”), but the point is for them to feel comfortable doing it on their own. Also, resist the urge to correct them too much, at least the first few times.
5. Embrace their feelings — even their shy feelings.
One major step for parents to take is to accept and talk about your introverted child’s feelings of being shy, nervous, or uncomfortable. When your child shrinks away from something, ask them how they’re feeling. Rather than “shy,” try to name more specific emotions: “Are you feeling nervous about talking?”
Show that you accept it, and tell them you get nervous when you have to talk, too. Relate to their feelings and show you care. Let them know that the feelings themselves are natural and normal, even if you still need to work together to do an uncomfortable task.
6. Express confidence in them.
This includes changing both your words and your actions. For words, it’s helpful to say, “Aww, I can see that you’re worried, but I’m confident you can handle it,” or “I know it’s scary, but you practiced this a lot, and I can tell you’re ready to try it.”
For actions, be a little more hands-off with correcting your child. Let them express opinions and ask them questions about it. Let them do things imperfectly and don’t jump in to help if they don’t ask. Sometimes, it’s the little mess-ups in life that give us the most confidence of all.
And if you need added guidance, seeking out a therapist for your introverted child may help them overcome shyness, too. That way, a professional can help guide them along the way.
You might like:
- How Theater Taught Me the Difference Between ‘Introverted’ Vs. ‘Shy’
- How to Raise a Confident Introverted Child
- 15 Things You Should Never Do to Your Introverted Child
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