Why is my child so shy?

March 11, 2010, 10:58 am Ian Wallace - Family psychologist practicalparenting

Psychologist Ian Wallace answers the classic questions the parents of shy littlies ask.

Why so shy?
Toddler + Preschooler
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You watch that bold little boy chatting confidently to near-strangers and wonder why your toddler is so shy. The most likely answer is that your little one was simply born that way. Most shy toddlers have a certain kind of neurological wiring that makes them naturally highly emotional, anxious and sensitive, but they’ll also probably be quite creative and passionate.

You might be tempted to just let him be the way nature seems to have intended, but go with your intuition – his shyness may mean he’s missing opportunities and being robbed of great experiences. He may even be bothered by his own shyness. So, you’ll be giving your shy toddler an incredible gift if you help him gain more confidence and transform into a happy little social butterfly.

Eye to eye

My little boy won’t look people in the eye or say hello. What do I do?

Whatever you do, don’t force eye contact or move heaven and earth to extract a hello. He wants to say hello, but he’s just too shy to, so it’s not fair to criticise. Practice at home with lots of engagement, being very positive and animated every time your toddler makes eye contact.

When familiar visitors are there, have them do the same, lighting up as soon as even partial eye contact is made. Your boy needs reassurance, so praise him: “It’s great to see your beautiful face and eyes,” or “We just love your smiley face.” Keep it light and if he withdraws, ask, “Where’s our beautiful boy gone? We loved his smiley look before.”

Gradually build his confidence until he begins slowly making eye contact and is happy to greet people in public.

Social settings

The whole family is gathered, but she refuses to leave my lap, even refusing to go to Grandma. It is so, so embarrassing.

Big gatherings are overwhelming for shy toddlers so it’s better to begin introducing others and building contact in a safer, quieter environment, such as with a small group of relatives or friends in your own home.

Build her confidence in being with others at safe times, such as with an aunty sitting next to her watching a favourite DVD. Keep the interactions brief until her confidence builds, then increase the time.

Prepare her for what to expect before going to a party – tell her who will be there and what will happen. Don’t force her to interact with people in the party setting. If anyone does approach, they need to be soft, taking a submissive position, such as squatting low beside your daughter.

Reassure her she’s managed speaking to and being with other people at home: “You’re good at quick cuddles with Grandma at home now…” Be firm in not letting any well-meaning soul sweep her up or overwhelm her just as she’s developing her confidence. She doesn’t want to be a jet plane flying around her uncle’s head just yet.

Playing fair

My toddler refuses to go off and play with other kids. He clings to me and demands I play with him.

While it might be tempting, giving in and playing with him when there are other kids around in a social setting doesn’t allow for him to grow or learn to take risks. He does want to play with the others, he’s just very unsure.

You need to be firm and say: “Mummy can’t just play with you, we can only join in with Jake.”

Don’t give in to tantrums. Before outings, prepare him by explaining you can’t just play with him, but you’ll join him if he plays with other children. Be positive: “Let’s go see what Jake’s doing.”

Keep introducing him to the other children and avoid labelling him as the shy one to other parents. Instead be positive and say: “He’s getting better at playing with other kids now.”

Keep up lots of praise even for gradual improvement: “You did great today in trying to start to play with Jake and I was very proud of you.”

Cupcake anyone?


My daughter only lets my husband or I get her drinks or treats. She refuses everyone else who offers her anything. Do we just indulge her?

Watch that she doesn’t have too many obsessive routines that control everyone at home and then cause problems in social settings.

Don’t overwhelm her with lots of people asking, but have one or two trusted friends repeatedly offer food, but only briefly, then walk away and try again later. “Hey, beautiful cupcakes, Holly. Sure you don’t want one? Oh well, no big deal, maybe we’ll try again later.”

Notice and praise any efforts she makes: “That was so great you took a bit of cake from your aunty. That was very brave and you got yummy cake for being brave and trying.”

Talk the talk

My little boy is shy and won’t talk, so everyone in the family answers for him. Are we doing damage?

Regrettably, well-meaning, overprotective people delay a shy toddler’s language development by talking for him. He may have language problems, but he has effectively trained you to all rescue him. Because he is probably struggling with language, keep messages and instructions concise and clear. Prompt him with a word or some very simple phrases that he can use, but don’t answer for him or allow your prompt to be a substitute for his answer. Whenever he does talk at home, stop, listen and be patient, and be sure to praise his efforts. Praise will build his confidence and this will hopefully help him overcome his shyness.

Shyness busters

* Begin slowly; build gradually.
  • Introduce your toddler to other people.
  • Prepare your toddler for challenges.
  • Practise and improve skills at home.
  • Praise attempts or partial gains.
  • Avoid speaking for your shy toddler.
  • Don’t give in to tantrums for peace.
  • Avoid labelling your toddler as being shy.
  • Don’t discuss the shyness problem in front of your toddler.
  • Don’t rush him or let him be overwhelmed.

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