The difference between a shy and fearful child – tools to help with both

I confined myself into being defined as a shy child for a long time. This made me somewhat fearful of interacting with others. Of course, later on I defined myself as a shy adult. As if this was a permanent personality trait (it’s NOT). I felt so limited by this label. And frustrated, because sometimes I was very outgoing and didn’t know why there was a difference in my interactions.

Often, I would feel fear in big social situations. So, I thought I must be fearful of meeting new people. In some ways, the “shy child” has been a life long study for me.

The difference between shyness and fears are much more clear to me now after observing my own social process and observing children over many years.

The Shy Child

First, know that feeling shy is a temporary state, not a personality trait. People aren’t 100% shy or 100% lifeLittle girl of the party. A feeling of shyness can come over anyone. It is when you want to observe more than interact.

This is very important, again, the feeling of shyness is when you want to observe more than interact. The personality trait underneath kids who often feel shy is the “Observant Child”.

The gifts of a shy child:

These children often become writers, teachers, therapists, because their basic nature is to observe people and situations first before jumping in to interact. They love to watch and understand other kids. Often, they are the first to observe when another child needs help, is sad, wanders off, breaks rules.

Observant kids are filming the play of life in their mind’s eye. They aren’t the directors and often prefer not to be a lead role actor. You cannot see the bigger picture of the play if you’re in the midst of it and these kids love seeing the bigger picture on WHY, HOW, WHEN. They jump into the action once they’ve done enough scoping out the scene.

The parenting temptation with children who often feel shy is to 1. Push or 2. Protect. Please, don’t do either!

Dangers of pushing: encouraging her to jump into the play with other kids is telling her to go against their natural curiosities of observation. You are telling her to stop filming the big picture and go be a lead actor- thinking she will have more fun, when in fact she will be miserable. She wants to be in the role best suited for her personality, let her.

Dangers of over-protection: This one is much more subtle and it is how kids who feel shy turn into kids who are fearful. Often, from birth, a baby will exhibit more of an observing tendency. When babies are really tuning into their world through deep observation, they get overwhelmed easier, fussier around people and loud noises. This makes moms want to shelter, protect these kids.

Protection a natural instinct when seeing your child get fussy after grandma dive bombs into her space on a visit. Next time mom will want to hold her baby and keep her from intruding visitors- to be helpful. Then the toddler wants to cling to mom when new people show up or in new situations because that’s the pattern which has been established.

A child can become fearful in new situations when parents are overly helpful during the course of the day, not just around social interactions. This is important, because when a parent intervenes each time a child cries or is frustrated with well-meaning help to stop the crying, the child looses a sense of confidence in her own ability to handle the situation. Step back and observe when she truly needs help and when she’s just frustrated about not getting it right as quickly as she’d like.

In that moment when she can’t get it right as quickly as she’d like and cries, whines, screams, let her work on it for a bit before offering any help.

This is the biggest key to overall self confidence, overcoming challenge by herself. Making this a practice as part of your day will encourage her to feel confident to overcome challenges in social situations on her own as well. There will be a big payoff to this approach, I’ve seen it work beautifully to help encourage confidence in so many children! Please read this post for detailed info on implementing this approach to self-confidence:

The Fearful Child

A child will move from being naturally observant into feeling fear around other people from repeated pushing because she will be afraid of being pushed past her limits of feel safe through observing then interacting.

She may also feel fear from over-protection because she’s been feeling mom’s fears that people will intrude. But the child doesn’t know why mom gets fearful when people arrive, she just reacts to the fear with her own fear. In her world, it’s, “Eeeek, someone just came over to the house and mom’s afraid again, what’s the problem?!”

If you shy child has become fearful, it’s also wonderful to gently celebrate her accomplishments during the day. Because often, the observant child has a strong desire to please and be helpful. Such as, “Thank you for giving your toy to your baby sister to help her since she can’t crawl yet.” Or, “You were really unhappy about cleaning up your toys at first, but I really appreciate your teamwork that you got them picked up. High five! A simple reflection of her accomplishments and teamwork will be a treasure to her. With more appreciation, she will generally feel less fearful and more confident in all areas of her life, including social situations.

How to help your shy child. The cure to both pushing and over-protection: Trust. Trust your child to observe and initiate connection when ready. Give her space to just “be” in new situations. She will jump into the play at some point. She will feel so much more confident about playing with others when she is the one initiating the jump- with a trusting parent in the background just letting her navigate it on her own.

The best thing you can do is to validate her response. At a playground when she says, “I don’t want to go play.” Respond with, “Ok, you would rather watch right now. You can go play when you want.”

When your observant child is a baby, put her in a position where she can see when people enter the room. Let her have a spot good to see everything in the room before people come over. Try not to be right next to her. This gives her the message you trust her to be ok without you next to her, and most importantly, this also allows you to intercept visitors.

Ask they talk with you first, before jumping over to see the baby. Explain she likes to take in new people before interacting with them. Visitors might have objections, especially grandma, so occasionally let people jump in to grab her.

Grandma can see for herself what you are talking about when the baby cries upon being picked up. Or she doesn’t cry, but trust her to voice her opinion. Your job is just to help people respect her opinion, but not to run defense 100% of the time and never give her a chance to decide for herself what is ok that day.

When your observant child is a toddler, again allow your child to have a good watching post when new people come over. She can stay there as long as she wants. She can get up to interact when she is ready.

Help her voice her opinion if people run up to her while she’s observing. “No I don’t want to play right now. I want to sit here.” When she initiates the interaction, she gains self confidence over trusting herself to take care of what she needs. When parents run defense to keep others away all the time (it’s ok occasionally- if needed), especially when she is verbal, she will feel fearful on her own and need others to speak for her.

When a child comes up to her and she cries, it’s helpful to say say what you see. To say what you see and validate her experience, try this, “I see that you are crying after this child came over. Would you like to say anything to him/her?”

Give her a moment. Let her cry – while standing on her own. Generally, no need to get her to stop crying by holding her or making the child go away. Yes, she’s uncomfortable, but she’s not in danger or being harmed (if the child tries to harm her, then step in). She will feel so confident once she has expressed herself through crying and/or through words to the other child. You are giving her a vote of confidence she can handle the situation, even when stressed.

I promise you aren’t abandoning her. You are right there with her. You aren’t running defense and “making it better”, which is giving a vote of no confidence in her ability to handle it. You are allowing her to express herself, either through tears or words- her choice. You’ll see she is much more courageous than you might imagine when given an opportunity to come up with a solution to the stress on her own- with your supportive, trusting presence.

smiling little girl giving red heartIt’s taken me a long time to recognize and celebrate my observant nature. This is the gift I try to give myself now – space to allow my feelings and trust I will interact, or observe, when it’s best for me. In this way, I’ve developed much more social courage and flexibility. I have much less fear of worrying about “what I should be doing” in social interactions. I have let go of “should’s” and embraced the flow of listening to my needs and responding accordingly.

I write this piece to help all the observant kids learn to trust themselves and allow their self confidence to shine, early on. Shyness isn’t a problem. Be trusting of your deeply observant child. Celebrate her gifts. She really is a gift to everyone around her. With space to be herself and on her own timeline socially, she will often be one of the most caring, kind, and generous children. She will offer much light and love to her world.

Blessings on your parenting journey. Don’t forget to celebrate yourself and your accomplishments in this crazy ride! – Lisa