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What makes a child shy? Part II

baby girl covering her face with her hat

Key points:

  1. The origins of shyness can be found in the temperamental reactivity of infants and the responsiveness of their parents.
  2. Over-protective and controlling parenting can negatively impact a child’s social development, leading to shyness.
  3. Parents continue to play an important role in a child’s social development during the preschool years, with shyer children often having less sensitive and more over-protective parents.
  4. It’s important for parents to find a balance between being supportive and over-protective, and to consider the context and difficulty of the task at hand before deciding whether a child needs help.

In another article, we talked about how both temperament and the environment play a role in the development of shyness, and how parenting styles and attachment are key aspects that influence this characteristic. So, how does this look through time?

0-24 months

You can find the origins of shyness at the earliest stages of life, in the temperamental reactivity a baby has and the sensitivity and responsiveness of the parents that care for them. Imagine an infant that has very strong negative emotional reactions; caring for them can be very demanding and their parents might have a hard time being sensitive and providing appropriate support. In turn, this makes it more difficult for them to establish a secure attachment. Instead, this baby is more likely to develop an ambivalent attachment style, which would make them scared of rejection and failure, thus, unable to cope with social situations and challenges. Even more, research has found that ambivalently attached toddlers have higher chances of being withdrawn and insecure later on when they start going to preschool.

Besides attachment, psychological control is also an important aspect for shyness development. There can be two different patterns which display an over-protective behavior. One would be a very intrusive and unnecessary micromanagement of the child’s activities. This kind of interaction gives the child the idea that they are not capable of doing anything without their parents’ help and negates them the opportunity to practice coping skills during challenging situations (appropriate for their developmental stage). The other pattern of over-protective behavior involves criticizing and mocking, which can also threaten the child’s confidence and feeling of self-worth. So, whether it is extremely affectionate or negative, over-controlling behaviors towards a withdrawn child will make them more prone to maintain a shy and reserved behavior later in life.

What to do at this stage? Pay attention to your baby’s cues and respond to them; being sensitive to your little one’s needs can help them feel secure and confident later on. Spend quality time with your baby, doing age-appropriate activities. Be warm, praise them, show positive affect towards them to reduce their chance of anxiety in the future, and help them have a strong background for later social competence.

What’s important at this stage? Find a balance between being supportive and caring (so that your baby feels secure), but avoid having an over-protective or controlling behavior (so that your baby feels capable of doing things by themselves).

2-5 years

Yes, those early moments are essential for your baby’s social development, however, that doesn’t mean that their social tendencies are not malleable after the 24 months mark. Parents keep playing an important role during the preschool years. Research has shown that shyer kids have more over-protective and less sensitive parents who fail to encourage their autonomy.


But how do you know if you’re being supportive or over-protective? There’s a fine line that divide these two. Parents are supposed to be greatly involved and caring all the time, right? Well, it’s all a matter of context and what the situation calls for. An interesting study examined parents’ behavior with their children in two different contexts. It was found that when parents are more caring and apprehensive during their child’s free play (a context where children can experiment without needing so much help), their children were also more restrained when playing with peers, suggesting that playing with peers becomes more of a threat than a fun social engagement for them. On the other hand, when parents acted in this way during difficult tasks (a context where children were challenged and could become upset), their children were less reserved.

We have to keep in mind that your child’s own self-regulation abilities and emotional arousal will play a role in how much your parental behaviors will influence them. On the one hand, children who respond calmly to challenging situations (who have good self-regulation) cope better, even if socialization from parents is not on point. On the other, children who depend more on external sources of support (who have poor self-regulation) need more caring and compassionate parenting to be able to cope with situations and are more vulnerable to the negative effects that a controlling parent can have over them; thus, they have a greater risk of being shy and inhibited.

What to do at this stage? Get to know your child and their personality, notice when they need more support or when they can manage on their own. Take into account the context and difficulty of the task at hand before deciding that your child needs help.

What’s important during this stage? Know the situation’s demands and your little one’s needs to decide which parental response will be more effective and which would, on the contrary, be unfavorable for your child’s proficient social development.

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11 Responses

  1. What should I do if my child don’t want to listen to me and I want to overcome her shyness , I want her to increase her confidence and become courageus and strong girl cuz she always scared every time she heard the fireworks or anything that is loud noise .

    1. Hello Yosh! Thank you for reading and commenting in our blog =). Having fear of loud noises is a common thing in little kids, as she grows up the fear is going to be reduced. Right know what you can do is talk with your child, let her express to you, as she can, why she is afraid when she hears a loud noise and what that makes her feel. Also you can gradually help her overcome greater obstacles. Always remember to support your child and make her feel she can do it!

  2. Hello, this article was really interesting, it sounds like children who are confident are on the right track, however I was wondering if young children can be too confident and too forward? My daughter is 13 months and physically advanced, she also is very confident, calm and happy in new situations and around strangers: with eye contact, smiles, talking, and approaching new people for hugs. This may be because we have traveled a lot and she has a large extended family across the planet. This all seems great… though stranger danger has not been very evident (only rarely). What I’m worried mostly about is that I spent some time with a friend’s children (2-5 yrs old) who were confident to the point of a actual bullying and overpowering and negative behaviors… Is there research that indicates confidence in infants can lead to bullying in the following years? We do our best to encourage consideration of others and discouraging gestures that could hurt others. Unfortunately I have no idea of knowing wether certain actions are normal for an infant learning about herself and the world or a sign of an issue in the future. She can scare other children older than herself when she runs right up to them and hugs them, and I have noticed her grabbing at people’s faces. Would love more information if possible (such as links to relevant articles or advice 😊) thank you.

    1. Hi Anna! It sounds like you’re doing a great job! =) Every child is different and it doesn’t sound like your little one is being aggressive, just exploring and discovering everything around her! We have lot’s of articles that might interest you, take a look at these!

    1. Hi there! Of course the article applies to both girls and boys. The gender an article is written for is chosen at random and it varies across all of our articles.

  3. I have three children, one of whom is very shy. According to this article, I was just not a good enough parent to the very shy one. What is the point of saying that? She has a different temperament. We work with her, but her successes are not ours and neither are her challenges. To imply otherwise is ridiculous and demeaning. Your role should be to encourage and educate parents, not to blame them for their children’s struggles.

    1. Hi Marina! Thank you for your comment. We are very sorry, that’s not at all what we want to portray with the article! Of course some children will be more shy than others, and that’s totally ok! Sometimes a child can be inherently reserved and it can take a little longer for him to warm up to new situations, places, and people. What’s important is that he’s not emotionally distressed, to the point that his shyness becomes disabling and doesn’t allow him to adapt. This article just talks about some factors that research has found could make a withdrawn child even more prone to maintain a shy and reserved behavior later in life. Every child is different and develops in his own way – you have been experiencing this first-hand! What’s most important is that we spend quality time with them and that we are responsive to their interactions, showing them that we support and love them very much <3

    1. Hi Nargiza! Ambivalent attachment can develop when the parental responses are inconsistent (sometimes the parent responds but not others or sometimes the response is warm but other times its very cold), this can cause anxiety for the child, as he or she is uncertain about the type of response he or she might get.

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