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Why shyness happens
If your child frequently hides his head against your legs when people talk to him and resists trying new things, you may already have realized that he's naturally bashful. He might also be a bit anxious or restless and cry when he's faced with unfamiliar people or situations. You may wonder where this tendency came from and how long it will last.
It turns out that genes and environment both play a part in shyness: Experts believe that some children come into the world with a biological tendency to be shy. Their genetic makeup may make them especially sensitive to stimulation when they're babies. As they grow older, that same sensitivity can make them shy in social situations.
But before concluding that your toddler is shy, consider that he might just be going through a stage. If your child has suddenly become more cautious around strangers or fearful of letting you out of his sight, it's probably separation anxiety, which crops up right around the time most children become more mobile and independent.
Most children go through a period of separation anxiety between ages 6 months and 3 years. It may be triggered by a new childcare setting, a parent going out of town, or a fear of being alone in the dark.
If you sense that your toddler's bashfulness is more than a stage, try not to worry. His shyness doesn't have to hold him back. A little patience, understanding, and loving care from you can make a big difference.
Ways to help when your child is shy
Don't label your toddler as shy. Don't talk about your child's timidity with others in his presence. If he hears you refer to him as shy, he may take it as criticism or as a negative attribute that sets him apart from others. Instead, try saying, "He takes his time to get comfortable with people he doesn't know." Try not to always think of your child as shy, either. If you expect shyness, your expectation may influence his behavior.
Be sympathetic. Let your child know that you understand how she feels. If you walk into a roomful of toddlers at a birthday party, for example, you might say, "It's hard when all the kids are being so noisy, isn't it?" This tells her that her reaction is natural and that others might feel the way she does.
Offer encouragement. Any time your child reaches out to make a friend or join an activity, praise his efforts, no matter how tentative. If you catch him flashing a bashful smile at Grandma after he's spent 15 minutes hiding in your skirt, say, "That's a nice smile. I bet that makes Grandma happy," instead of commenting on how long it took for him to say hello. Coach your child's aunts, uncles, and grandparents to be patient and to avoid pushing him to talk.
Don't criticize or belittle. Nothing crushes a child's confidence faster than unkind words, even if you think you're just teasing. Remember, there's nothing to be gained from making your child feel bad for being shy. This is just how she is – it's not a trait that she can turn on and off at will.
Don't avoid social situations. Keeping your child away from group activities won't make life easier for him. He may take a little longer to get involved in activities or join the table at a birthday party, but the more he's exposed to such gatherings, the more comfortable he'll become. Organizing playdates can help him practice social skills without a lot of pressure.
When you're invited to a big gathering or party, try to get there before other children arrive, so your child will have extra time to relax and feel settled.
Find less stressful ways for your child to be social. Choose activities that involve smaller groups and quiet or familiar environments. If the library is one of your child's favorite places, take her to story hour there or invite a friend to join you for a library visit.
There's no way to know whether your child will remain shy, but countless people have outgrown childhood bashfulness. Just emphasize the acceptance and support that will help your child face the world, and she'll probably feel more comfortable with time. But it's important to remember that shyness is nothing to be ashamed of, and that plenty of shy people lead happy, fulfilling lives.