By: Malia Jacobson
When your kid shirks social interaction, hiding behind your legs at the playground or hugging the wall at a birthday party, it’s easy to assign a label: shy. But a socially withdrawn child might not be “shy” at all—he may simply be an introvert, he may be in the throes of normal separation anxiety, or, in rare cases, he might have a social phobia.
But don’t be too quick to assign that label, either. Per the National Institute of Mental Health, true social phobia involves an intense fear of being watched, judged, or humiliated by fears that interferes with the ability to form relationships. This condition is relatively rare, appearing in about five percent of teens around age 13. But many more children and teens display traits of shyness, or mild social anxiety, including feeling uneasy at social events, avoiding eye contact, and retreating to solitude at the earliest opportunity. If these behaviors sound familiar, read of for ways to help your quiet child thrive.
EARLY YEARS 0-5
It’s normal, even healthy, for babies and toddlers to experience some separation anxiety when they’re away from their primary caregiver, particularly from around 8 moths to age 3. But what about children who display distress even when they’re not separated from a primary caregiver, such as clinging to a parent’s arm or crying or withdrawing when introduced to a new playgroup? These children may be slow-to-warm-up, says Psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, co-author of Growing Friendships: A Kid’s Guide to Making and Keeping Friends (2017).
“Slow-to-warm-up temperament is a style of relating that’s not necessarily problematic,” she says. “While some kids crave variety and leap into new situations, other kids have a more cautious style. They like to observe and get the lay of the land before they jump in. Again, these kids aren’t necessarily shy (socially anxious).” If slow-to-warm-up describes your child, give your child ample time to adjust to each new social environment—for example, arrive 15 minutes early to toddler gym and introduce your child to the instructor beforehand.
When selecting classes or activities, choose ones that allow your child to remain by your side (or on your lap) while he warms to a new social group.
ELEMENTARY YEARS 6-12
Even if your child seems undeniably shy, using that term might be a bad idea, says Kennedy-Moore. “Be careful about labeling your child as ‘shy’ because that implies this is an unalterable part of who they are. Instead, you can say things like, ‘You prefer…’ or ‘You’re more comfortable doing…’ These phrases acknowledge your child’s feelings but also leave room for your child to grow and change.”
Though you don’t want to force a distressed child to socialize, there are times when you may want to coach your child to encourage smoother social sailing. Socially hesitant children may dread certain social scenarios, say, the first day of school or a birthday party, because they fear the unexpected. Take some surprise out of feared encounters by talking through each aspect of the encounter in advance. For example, talk about what your child will do when she boards the bus for school (greet the driver, search for friends on board, then take a seat) or arrives at the party (hang up your coat, put the gift on the gift table, and greet the birthday kid). Role-play through especially stressful scenarios to help your child gain confidence and learn to cope with social stressors.
TEEN YEARS 13-18
Peer acceptance is paramount during the teen years, making social interaction even more worrisome for quieter, less gregarious teens. For teens who have trouble meeting friends and joining groups, encourage purpose-driven activities organized around an activity, says family coach Kate Paquin of Apex, North Carolina. When the group has a clear purpose and assigned tasks to complete, social interactions are less intimidating and forced, and real friendships can blossom, she notes. Think teen volunteer groups, youth groups, coding or gaming clubs, or art or music classes or groups. If lunchtime is torturous for your quiet teen, check with her school’s counseling department about organized lunch groups, or see if she can use lunch as a quiet study period instead.
Theater or drama may come especially naturally to quieter teens, says Kennedy-Moore. “Surprisingly, many shy children enjoy acting. Having a script to work with lets them try out different ways of being around others and makes them less self-conscious.”
Malia Jacobson is a health and parenting writer.