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We used to think that shyness was a learned trait. We now know that extreme shyness has a genetic component.

About 15% of children are born with a tendency to be shy when confronted with new people and cautious when put in new situations.

The inhibited, or shy, child will exhibit actual, measurable physiological changes like an increase in heart rate and muscle tension when confronted with a new situation. These are the same changes found when adults are subjected to stress.

About 20% of children are the opposite of shy. These babies infants smile when they are confronted with something new and do not demonstrate the above physiological changes. They go to a stranger happily and do not seek refuge behind the mother’s skirts.

The majority of children are neither shy nor gregarious by nature but, like most of us, are sometimes shy and sometimes outgoing. The shy and gregarious infants and children, on the other hand, almost always demonstrated either the shy or gregarious behavior.

And these traits persist. The inhibited infant remains shy. Such children avoid the unfamiliar. They are quieter in play and talk less. They usually do well at school and are unlikely to have behavior problems or become delinquent, but are at a somewhat higher risk for anxiety disorders in adulthood.

Whether a child is temperamentally shy or gregarious seems to be inborn and not related to how the child is treated by the parents. Thus genes, rather than environment–nature, rather than nurture–seem to be the most important determinants.

Shyness can be disturbing to parents. The shy child seems uncomfortable and no parent wants to see their child suffer.

Fathers are often upset because they equate a shy child, especially a boy, with being a “baby” or a “sissy” neither of which is acceptable. And parents of either gender who remember their own shy childhood want desperately to prevent their child from experiencing the same distress.

Parents are unable to change those basic personality traits with which a child comes into the world. But parents can help a child deal with the hand already dealt. How?

  • Understand and accept your child’s personality.
  • Parenting does not cause shyness, you did not do anything wrong.
  • Do not worry about the shy child’s future and do not let your own memories of painful shyness or being called “sissy” interfere with the way you parent the shy child.
  • The best way to describe shyness to an alien from another planet is “SLOW TO WARMUP.”
  • Give your child TIME TO WARM UP to new situations. Don’t make things harder by forcing the child to kiss Cousin Sally or acting disappointed when the child hangs back.
  • PREPARE your child for NEW SITUATIONS. Talk about a relative who is coming to visit. Explain you will meet Aunt Sue at the airport and she will sleep in the guest room.
  • Structure your child’s life to temper situations you know will be frightening. If there is a big family party planned, take the child there early so he or she can get used to the site and meet new arrivals in small groups. This is easier on a shy child than arriving at a strange house filled with noisy strangers.
  • Help your child master shyness. Enroll the child in preschool or make opportunities for the child to be with same-age children. Tell the teacher that the child is shy so you can work together to help the child deal with this.
  • Praise the child specifically for the things he or she does well so the child will build up a sense of confidence. Self-esteem depends largely on competencies so give your child many opportunities to do the things done well.
  • Role-play together to help the child learn how to talk to people and meet new people. Tell your child to pretend to be a puppy dog meeting a pussy cat. “What would Puppy Dog say to Kitty Cat?” This is an important game to play because shy children talk less. When asked questions they answer politely but they don’t make spontaneous comments. As adults they have trouble initiating conversation.
  • Help the child REHEARSE NEW THINGS like the first day of classes or going to a friend’s birthday party.
  • AVOID LABELS. Don’t call your child shy or refer to your child as the “shy one”. If you must say anything to people, say, “My child likes to look new people over very, very carefully”.