Gargi is seven-years-old. She is very shy. She refuses to greet her friends’ parents. She will not even associate with children her age, unless she has known them for a while. With her close friends (she has only two!), though, she is great. Does Gargi have a problem? How can she be helped?

What Situations Make Children Feel Shy?

New social encounters are the most frequent causes of shyness, especially if the shy person feels herself to be the focus of attention. Adults who constantly call attention to what others think of the child, or who allow the child little autonomy, may encourage feelings of shyness.

Why Are Some Children More Shy Than Others?

Disposition: Some children are dispositionally shy. They are more likely than other children to react to new social situations with shy behaviour.

Learned Behaviour: Some aspects of shyness are learned. By labelling their children “shy”, some parents appear to encourage a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Heredity: There is growing evidence of a hereditary basis for some variations of dispositional shyness.

What's Good About Shyness?

Here’s the good news! Shyness can be a normal, adaptive response to a potentially overwhelming social experience. By being somewhat shy, children can withdraw temporarily and gain a sense of control. Usually, as children gain experience with unfamiliar people, shyness wanes.

Shyness is a personality trait, not a fault. Shy children tend to misbehave much less than other children. This is because shy children seem to care about what others think of them.

Shy people tend to be more attentive, even without saying a word. Many shy children have a solid sense of self-worth. They have an inner peace about them that shines. They are slow to warm to strangers, but once comfortable they can be quite charming. They take a long time to form a friendship but it is generally one for life.

Shyness as a problem

Shyness in itself is not a problem unless it really interferes with your child’s functioning. In the absence of other difficulties, shy children have not been found to be significantly at risk for behavioural or psychiatric problems.

Shyness becomes a problem when it is neither context-specific nor transient. Such children may lack social skills or have poor self-images. Shy children are often judged by peers to be less friendly and therefore less likeable, as they find it very difficult to initiate play with others. For all these reasons, shy children may be neglected by peers and have few chances to develop social skills. It is only then that shyness becomes a problem.

Ways to decrease shy behavior

Here are a few things that you might try doing:

Prevent labelling the child as "shy". First, and most importantly, do not label her “shy” or it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Show empathy when she is afraid to interact. Empathise with her inability to have a conversation with adults, but insist on good manners. She has to say her “thank you”s, “hello”s and “goodbye”s. Make a pact with her, promising that beyond these basic niceties you will not insist that she have a conversation with them. This will make the adults seem less threatening to her.
Recall your own past experiences. Telling your child about the occasions in your childhood when you were bashful - and how you overcame them - will give her a sense of control and make her think, “If mum could do it, I can too!”
Set goals. With her consent, of course, set small goals every week or month. For example, you can start with asking her to say just one word to one new person each day. Other such achievable goals could include: trying to answer a question in class daily, asking a little question to the teacher, or playing with another child. You can make a chart and give her stars for every small achievement, along with loads of praise.
Reward her for outgoing behaviour. Whenever she proves outgoing, praise your daughter. Praise even slight improvements with, "I like the way you went up to that girl and asked her name,” instead of “Wow, you were just great!” which does not really qualify the action.
Role-play. Many children, particularly the reticent ones, lack the skills to go up to a group of kids already playing and ask to join in. So you need to be there to help your child ask to play. Prior to that, you can role-play with him. You can be Rahul and he could be the dominant child in the group. Or you can use puppets. For instance, Puppet A: "What's your name?" Puppet B: "Jai." Puppet A: "My name is Rahul. Are you playing football today?" Puppet B: "No, cricket." Puppet A: "May I play cricket too?” In this case you can try to take him to the field a little early before a whole group of children have come to play, so that he can get comfortable with a couple of kids before the whole team barges in.
Play dates: Observe a couple of kids playing regularly, who you think are similar in temperament, and call them over to play on a one-on-one basis. These children will then be able to involve her and because your child will then be already comfortable with them, she will join in easily.
Talking through another child. Another good strategy, which might be called triangulation, involves speaking to another child, then asking your child what she thinks about something relating to the conversation. Here’s an example. Parent to other child: "I like your Spiderman shoes.” Parent to own child: "Do you like them? Don't you have a Spiderman figure which moves?" You are helping your child by prompting, without putting too much pressure on her.
Don’t bring attention to the child: A mistake that a lot of us make with our shy children is to ring attention on to them. Here is this little girl hiding behind her mother’s kurta, very apprehensive to go for a party. And there is Mum who whisks her out from behind her and says brightly, ”Say ‘hello’ to auntie and uncle...Tell them your name! ” This really scares a shy kid. Give her time to feel her way around and be comfortable. Of course, insist that she wave a goodbye greeting or exchange a “hello” if she is unable to greet them.
Praise others' outgoing behaviour in front of the child. By positively commenting on the outgoing behaviour of others, she may come to value outgoing behaviour while learning the specifics of this behaviour. For instance, you may say to your child, "I like the way that boy came up to us and asked us our names", or directly compliment the other child in the presence of the shy child. The comment shows positive regard for a specific behaviour that your child could emulate. There’s no need, however, to add any comment such as, "Why can't you act like that?"

Remember that shyness is not always a problem. In fact, she may grow up to be a great listener (many shy children are!), and enjoy deep and lasting friendships.