All Articles Parenting Kids Ages 5-10

The Shy (Sensitive) Child

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Being shy in our culture is not an easy thing.  We tend to admire people who are outgoing, gregarious and socially confident.  Children who can talk about anything to just about anyone are seen as cute and engaging and make adults smile.  Children who hide behind their mother’s legs are seen as socially awkward and can make others feel uncomfortable.  Parents of shy kids often find themselves apologizing for their children’s behavior or cajoling them to respond to adult advances to avoid embarrassment.  Western cultures usually have a negative reaction to shyness in children whereas Eastern cultures see such traits as embodying respect, self-control, and modesty.

It’s Biological

Somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of our population consider themselves shy.  Studies have found that shy people naturally have greater levels of activity in their amygdala (the emotional center of the brain), demonstrating that shyness is typically not a learned personality characteristic, but an innate, genetic trait (although trauma and life events can create adult-onset shyness).

Shy or Highly Sensitive?

Dr. Elaine Aron has done a great deal of work to help re-frame the concept of shyness in our culture.  What we commonly referred to as “shy,” she prefers to call “highly sensitive.”  These people appear inhibited because their heightened awareness makes them cognizant of all the possible outcomes of a particular situation.  Highly sensitive adults and children feel, smell, taste and experience things in their environment with a great degree of intensity.  Noisy places are bothersome.  Lumps in socks bring a host of complaints.  Calming down after a busy day is difficult.  A stern look can feel as if it left an open wound.  In short, they take in and take to heart more than their non-highly sensitive counterparts.  This can leave them feeling overwhelmed by their surroundings and at times avoidant of that which is simply “too much.”  However, these people tend to be conscientious, intuitive, empathetic, tuned in to the needs of others, artistic, creative and much more (to learn more about highly sensitive people go to www.hsperson.com).

What You Can Do

  • First of all, accept the fact that your child may never be the star in the school play, he may not be able to tolerate large birthday parties, and may need more alone time than his peers.
  • Next, see the value of shyness.  Your child will likely never talk to strangers, will be less likely to “go along with the crowd,” and will typically engage in less risk-taking behaviors in the teen years.
  • When entering a social situation, anticipate with your sensitive child what things he might encounter and how he would like it handled.  If an adult says “hi” to him would he like to wave or have you return the greeting on his behalf?
  • For young children who avoid eye contact, become mute in response to adult greetings and hide behind their mother’s legs, don’t apologize or force them to respond.  Deflect attention away from them – having all eyes focused on them can feel highly invasive to a sensitive child.
  • Be a good role model of appropriate social interactions:  say hello to strangers, hold doors for people, smile at others, and demonstrate a high level of comfort in public situations.
  • As your child ages, you can encourage him to try out new social skills (studies show that this type of sensitivity generally decreases as children age into young adulthood).  You can role-play and practice social skills at home.  When you see him behaving in a way that is out of his “comfort zone,” recognize his effort and point out the benefits that came from “pushing through the discomfort.”

Different at Home?

These children can be quite different at home.  They may be loud, excitable and energetic.  If you find this to be the case, your child does not have a split personality, you have simply provided your sensitive child with an environment in which he is comfortable being himself and feels safe.  You are his buffer.  He is the turtle’s body and you have provided the shell.  It is your job to protect his system from being overwhelmed while at the same time teaching him coping mechanisms and how to navigate a world that can be over-stimulating.

If you have a child like this, consider yourself blessed.  He will help you have “eyes to see” and “ears to hear” things that you never noticed before.  Your life will be enriched if you take time to learn from his.

About the author

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in children and families. CfP is the place she combines some of her very favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She loves encouraging parents to build their families upon Jesus, the one true Cornerstone. She is happily married to a wonderfully supportive husband and is the mother of two delightfully inspiring children.

4 Comments

  • Thanks, Laura…from the shy mom of a shy child.

    I’ve tried telling my daughter that it’s okay to feel shy, but you don’t have to act like it! That works to some extent, but maybe I just need to stop encouraging her to be something she’s not.

  • Thanks, Laura…
    Safety first. A child’s sense of safety is so key to interactions. Forcing or prompting leads to further withdrawal.
    I agree that the perceptions of children are guided to some degree by parents who wisely make room for fears and forays into a demanding world.

  • Thank you for the article. My 9 year daughter was told by her teacher yesterday that she was rude and preventing others from learning. She fits to a “t” your description of a sensitive child. Her rude behavior of course is her inability to answer questions in small group settings. Yesterday others in her group were answering and she was called on. The answers she thought of were already stated and she felt pressed to respond with a different answer and shut down.
    I will tell you that she is a straight A student,finishes her work among the first in class and is often the one prevented from learning as she waits for the rest of the class. I have wrestled with taking my children out of public school and home-schooling them. On some level I am afraid that it will harm them socially, but then I am reminded of what this social environment exposes them to.
    It was nice to hear that forcing her to act a certain way may very well make matters worse. If we could only get this message out to teachers and other adults who insist that these children are rude.Perhaps sensitivity training in our teachers would be a start.

    • Thank you for stopping by. I can empathize with your situation. Raising a sensitive child is filled with challenges (and rewards!). Often times the struggles come from trying to help our children live in a world where 80% of the population does not understand them. I agree that there needs to be some changes/education in how these special little ones are treated and viewed. I would recommend reading Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Child. It is a very comforting and informative book for parents. There is a section on helping your child navigate through the stresses of a typical school environment and a looks at the alternatives (including homeschooling). As you indicated, sensitive children are often intellectually gifted as well. The manifestations of their sensitivities, unfortunately, can lead to misdiagnoses and misunderstandings. My advice is that you educate yourself as much as you can on the issue of sensitivity in children so you can be the best advocate for your daughter in whatever environment you choose. You are already on your way.

      Blessings to you and your family,
      Laura Kuehn, LCSW

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