What your child learns when people call them ‘shy’

Don’t call my child shy

I know, I know; it’s so easy to do, right? Every parent wants to raise a confident child. Yet, you say hello to a child and he buries his face in his mummy’s shoulder. The next words that come out of your mouth are something like “Aww he’s shy” or “You don’t have to be shy with me”. You might even find yourself explaining to people how your own child is very shy, as if you’re making excuses for his or her behaviour.

“Don’t be so shy” is something I heard a lot last year. My nephew turned one at Christmas. He spends a lot of time quietly observing people. He might turn away or look for reassurance when spoken to. I see this happens more when he meets new people, he’s taken to a new place, or there are many people and lots of noise; when there is a lot to take in. After a while, he settles and interacts as well as any other child. Yet, friends and family members choose to comment on his ‘shyness’.

At 12 months old, he hasn’t learnt to be shy but people are clearly mistaking his behaviour for shyness.

Similarly, I visited a family with two young children yesterday. The 2-year old wasn’t sure about the stranger drinking tea on the sofa and spent some time sizing me up from the other side of the room. When I spoke to him, he hid himself behind a large cushion. When he spoke to his father, it was in a whisper I could barely hear. Then, twenty minutes later, the boy was running around the room playing with his cars and rummaging through his toy box, right next to me. He was perfectly at ease with me being there. The little boy’s mother shared a story about how that he seems to hold back and observe a situation before diving in. He just seems to take a little longer than other children to feel comfortable with a new person or situation.

“My friends call him shy. Do you think I should be worried?”

The slide into shy

What others call shyness is often not what’s going on for a child at all. Some people will see behaviour that they associate with shyness and assume the cause is fear or anxiety and respond as if your child ought to be fixed or ‘brought out of their shell’.

What does this tell a child?

When you treat a child as if they are shy and afraid, this tells the child that there is something wrong with them. What you believe to be encouraging and reassuring behaviour can actually be quite damaging.

When you focus on the wrong reason a child appears to be less sociable, you’re overlooking the many positive aspects of their personality. You’re shining the spotlight on something you (and they) think is a problem. You’re silencing their thoughtful voice; dismissing their sensitivity; criticising their cautious nature; and failing to notice their powers of observation and their remarkable ability to notice the subtleties of their environment… everything that makes them who they really are.

When a child grows up with a sense that there is something wrong with them, they develop low self-esteem. They learn to be shy.

The shame of shyness

Here’s the long-term problem: Labelling a child ‘shy’ means you’re talking about who they are as a person, not just their behaviour. Children will often take others’ observations seriously, especially those of the people they look up to. They absorb the labels you give them and these are difficult to shake off.

Shyness is not considered a desirable trait in western culture. The term shy has some very negative connotations: anxious, awkward, fearful, timid, inhibited, etc. Our society openly approves of being bold and outgoing more than being reserved and quiet. Therefore, a child knows very well that being called shy is not a compliment and they begin to believe that they are not good enough. Eventually, they could come to believe that shyness is a part of who they are at their core and the label of ‘shy’ becomes self-fulfilling.

Shyness can trigger a feeling of shame which, as shame and worthiness researcher Brené Brown explains here, is a fear of disconnection. It becomes something about them that they believe means they won’t be worthy of connection, if other people know it or see it. This means your child might attempt to hide who they really are in many situations; their lack of confidence and self-belief will be evident in their behaviour. How do you think this will affect them, both as the child they are now and the adult they will become?

Using your words to raise a confident child

Children are born imperfect and wired for struggle but they’re all worthy of love and belonging just as they are. What if you were to do your very best to make them feel that way? The challenge is that we don’t always recognise the impact of our words. How awesome would your child feel about themselves if you were to talk about them in a positive light with acceptance and encouragement?

Talk about behaviour

Your child may appear to be acting ‘shy’ right now, but that doesn’t make them a shy child. It’s important to recognise that your child’s behaviour will change from one situation to the next. It’s more important to notice how you are speaking about your child. The term you use will have a big impact on the way they think and feel about themselves. Drop the labels.

Focus on the positives

If at first you think a child is shy, too quiet or reserved, ask yourself “what else could this behaviour be..?” is your child thoughtful, reflective, careful or cautious? It’s easy to reframe how you see a child when you open your mind to other possibilities and this puts you in an excellent position to help the child learn about all of their positive qualities too.

Nurture their quiet gifts

As with adults, all children have different personalities. Your child might simply be displaying introverted or highly sensitive traits –not something that needs ‘fixing’! (Find out if your child is highly sensitive here). Maybe you could help them to feel comfortable taking their time to assess a situation first. Or praise their capacity for reflection. Let them know that it’s OK to take their time if that’s what they need to do to feel at ease with a situation. Then, teach them that everyone will take a different approach so they learn not to compare themselves with others.

Recognise the potential in your child’s quiet nature and nurture their individuality. When you open your eyes to their strengths, you’ll find that they see it too and they’ll become quietly confident to live their life in a way that’s true to who they really are. After all, that’s what we really want for our children, isn’t it?

Useful links:
How to Parent Sensitive (Orchid) Children by Susan Cain
For Extroverts: 15 Ways to Be a Better Parent to Your Introverted Kid by Jennifer Granneman

Join the Quiet Community here


  • Hayley Stanton

    Hi, I’m Hayley - the original quieteer. I, too, identify as a quiet person. I’m naturally a highly sensitive introvert and I love and appreciate my quiet strengths now, but I spent much of my life not feeling good enough and experiencing social anxiety. I missed so many opportunities because I was afraid of being judged harshly, criticised and rejected – and because I doubted that I had the ‘right’ personality to succeed. Quiet Connections exists in part because I had a fantastic coach who helped me to work through old patterns of keeping myself small and hidden so that I could show up and be seen to play my part in creating the more connected, curious and compassionate world that I dream of. Now, I’m passionate about helping quiet people discover their unique qualities, gifts, passions and experiences and explore how best to use these to express themselves more authentically and contribute to the world in a way that works with their quieter or more sensitive nature. Get to know me here.

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