Family life educator Janice McCoy says that her 10-year-old daughter Charlotte can be a little shy at times.
To help Charlotte feel more at ease in new social settings, McCoy introduces her to adults and other children. Not long after, McCoy's daughter is happily playing and talking with her peers.
But other parents with shy children might be concerned about how to determine if their child's shyness is a serious problem or not. McCoy and two licensed clinical psychologists identified warning signs to watch for, and ways parents can help their shy children adapt to social settings.
Whether a child requires treatment or not for his or her shyness, there are things parents can do to help their child become more comfortable in new situations.
McCoy, who leads family life programs for University of Illinois Extension in seven counties, said parents need to let their child gradually warm up to a new social setting by introducing their child and helping him or her start conversations. If your child starts a new activity, McCoy advises parents to stay for the child's first lesson or practice.
Parents shouldn't get upset with their child when he or she is acting shy, because it will cause their child to become self-conscious and even more nervous in social situations, McCoy said. Most importantly, McCoy said parents should avoid calling their child "shy."
"It's important to not label your child as shy, because then your child gets a message that shy is something bad," McCoy said. "When it's really just oftentimes part of the child's temperament. Your child may be shy and slow to warm up to people, but none of that is necessarily within your child's control. It's just who they are."
When to step in
McCoy said parents should be concerned if their children, even with parents' help and coaching, have adverse reactions to being in social situations.
"If they clearly have anxiety that's exhibited in crying, regressive behavior, or anything like that, then it might be an indicator that your child is really struggling being in a social environment," McCoy said.
It's important for parents to first take into account their child's developmental age so they can have realistic expectations for their child's behavior, said Debra Gomez, who works as a licensed clinical psychologist at Tomkins and Associates in Naperville.
But if a child's shyness is impeding his or her day-to-day functioning, and causes the child to avoid interacting in school, and making friends, then the child's parents should take action, Gomez said.
Gomez advises concerned parents to collect as much information as possible before seeking professional assistance for their child. Gomez said parents should talk to their child's teachers, day care center and baby sitter to find out how their child is behaving in different environments.
If changes are made and their child still doesn't feel comfortable in these settings, then parents can talk to a pediatrician or a psychologist to find out how to help their child, Gomez said.
Many parents believe their children will outgrow their shyness, and therefore are not too concerned. But licensed clinical psychologist Susan Myket advises parents to be careful about making assumptions, because sometimes shyness can develop into something more serious, such as an anxiety disorder. Myket practices in Naperville.
"If your child is unable to talk to other kids or seems sad that he or she doesn't have friends, and if there are other signs too, like a family history of anxiety or depression, or parents suspect a specific anxiety (disorder), then they should have this evaluated by a child psychologist to be advised about proper treatment for their child," Myket said.
Myket said it's important for parents not to criticize their children for being shy, because shy children are more likely to internalize and remember it.
"You don't want to just see your child as a shy kid," Myket said. "You have a wonderful kid that is struggling with shyness, but that's something you're working on. You want your child to see beyond that."