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May 9, 2017

Some parents may worry that their ‘shy’ child will not fit in, but is a quiet temperament something to worry about or celebrate? Abby Lawrence talks to the experts about embracing quieter personality types.

"Oh, she’s too quiet for that. She won’t do that, she’s too scared. She won’t join in, she’s too shy.” These are just some of the comments I remember growing up with as a child. Learning to interact with the world and finding your place is all part of development, and although the comments were quite truthful observations, I do remember thinking that maybe I wasn’t enough, or as normal as my more confident, outspoken peers. 

We live in a world that often favours the extroverted, the bold and outspoken, and children may find themselves stuck with the label of ‘quiet’ or ‘shy’ if they don’t exhibit such qualities. But these introverted personality traits are not the negative attributes they are often made out to be. Instead, introversion should be something that is embraced and celebrated; it is neither better nor worse than extroversion but a different way of experiencing the world. 

 So how do you tell which way your child’s personality swings, and what can you do as a parent to embrace and support your child’s ‘quiet’ side? We talk to psychologist Dr Liz Peterson, a senior lecturer at Auckland University, about recognising your child’s temperament and how you can adapt your parenting style and give your quiet child a solid platform to
be themselves.

Shyness, introversion and inhibition explained

All children are individuals and respond differently to the world, but there are overarching personality traits that everyone falls into. ‘Introversion’ and ‘extroversion’ are two broad types of temperament, which Dr Peterson describes as the “general labels”. The distinction between extroversion and introversion is in how you interact with the world and how you process your energy and recharge. To put it simply, extroverts gain their energy from being around people, and introverts gain their energy from solitude or alone time. Shyness, on the other hand, is more fluid. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, describes shyness as “the fear of negative judgment” and introversion “a preference for quiet, minimally stimulating environments”. “Shyness is just a component of introversion,” explains Dr Peterson. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. You don’t have to be an introvert to be shy.

Slightly different again is the trait of inhibition that many children feel. Dr Peterson describes “inhibited children as those who have trouble seeking social interactions but actually want them”. Inhibition differs from shyness in that a shy child may be just fine with their own company or playing by themselves. The inhibited child may desperately want to join in “but they just don’t know how to engage”, says Dr Peterson.

How do I tell if my child is shy?

Your baby may begin to show you they are introverted or shy before they can even talk. “We do pick this up at the early age of around four months,” says Dr Peterson. “It is a lack of adaptability and we can spot this early on.” Watching closely how your little one reacts to different stimuli can be a great guide to see how sensitive they are. Dr Peterson describes a common situation in which a young baby may show these traits. “When you put your child in a cot with a novel stimulus they haven’t seen before above their head, they might start screaming or arching their back,” she says. “They don’t like the unfamiliar.” 

It doesn’t have to be only visual stimuli they react to - shy children may react to physical irritations such as a wet nappy or an itchy tag, or changes in routine.  

When it comes to older children, shyness can be easier to spot and respond to. You may notice your toddler becomes grumpy when around people for too long, or becomes anxious in a very stimulating environment.  “A really shy three year old might throw a tantrum about being put in the middle of a room full of people,” says Dr Peterson. Simply observing how your child responds to various situations can give you a good guide of their temperament, and what they will and won’t handle.    

Is there such a thing as too shy?

It’s only natural to worry about whether your child is unhappy or lonely, but as Dr Peterson puts it, “It’s not a curse to be shy. Temperament or personality is not something to ever be worried about, it’s just the way you are.” Your child may simply prefer to play by themselves, or they may take time to warm up to social situations. “It’s not necessarily fixed either,” says Dr Peterson. “There are a lot of things that make a child behave in a certain way. A shy, inhibited child can still, as an adult, get up and make a speech at work.” Showing quiet traits at a young age is not going to prevent your child from doing certain things as they grow up, or even necessarily mean that your child will be quiet as an adult. 

While there is a genetic element to personality, says Dr Peterson, it’s not fixed and it’s particularly not fixed at childhood. “It’s a moving feast, and that’s partly because cognitively a child goes from expressing very few emotions to expressing a range of really complex emotions in a short space of time.” For example, she explains, “A two-year-old child doesn’t really know complex emotions such as jealousy, that a ten year old does.” So even if you’ve identified your two year old has having a tendency to be shy “it doesn’t mean they are going to be an adult having the same tendency. As they age things can shift, it is a moving thing”.


Cultural lens

It is also interesting to note that there are many different ways quiet and shy children are viewed, especially within different cultures. When talking about children’s temperaments, you will often hear “she is an easy  baby”, “she is a little slow to warm up”, or “she is a difficult child”. Dr Peterson describes these as the main three measures of early temperament. 

“Your ‘slow to warm up’ child is your shy child, your easygoing child is the well-regulated, smiley, happy baby, and the difficult child is the child more likely to throw a tantrum.” These three personality types can be seen across cultures, but Dr Peterson explains that “what actually makes up a difficult child changes by different countries”. 

For example, the Italian culture views a difficult child as a shy child who is “low in approach, meaning they are not very good at entering new situations”, says Dr Peterson. Whereas in countries such as Australia and the United States, having a child who is the opposite and very high in activity is seen to be difficult. Applying this cultural lens is important, as “there are differences surrounding what is expected [of the child] and how they are judged.” 

How can I help my child thrive?

It’s important to create positive social experiences for your child. Here are some tips for helping your child in social situations, giving them a sense of control and helping them build their confidence.

  • When socialising your child, start with smaller groups. Letting them play on their own alongside others rather than trying to get them to join in can be helpful at first. Encourage interaction, rather than force it.
  • Dr Peterson recommends slowly introducing them to a situation, and being there to scaffold and support but not interfere. This could mean letting them watch children playing at the park for a few minutes before suggesting they take over a toy and join in. “Try not to rush in to help them when you see your child distressed,” she says. Standing back allows your child “to have a positive experience on which to fall back on, which builds their sense of self confidence and self worth”.
  • Gradual transitions can make all the difference. The emphasis is on going slowly, Susan Cain suggests. “Don’t let him opt out, but do respect his limits, even when they seem extreme.”
  • Routines are great for quiet children, as well as giving plenty of warning about activities or when you are going to leave. Knowing what is happening next in the day gives them a sense of control.
  • Avoid over-stimulating environments. “One of the things about inhibited or shy children is that they perhaps focus too much on the negative events and the threats, so if the environment is full of lots of stuff going on, they have a tendency to focus on all of those things rather than the things that matter. This is where anxiety can come from – focusing on all the things that could go wrong,” explains Dr Peterson.
  • Avoid labelling your child as ‘quiet’ or ‘shy’. Often the comments or labels children receive about being reserved can become upsetting, as they may begin to feel they're doing something wrong.
  • The main point is to accept and embrace your child’s personality. Give them space to be themselves and grow in confidence. Having a child with a quiet temperament is a gift with many upsides. When understood and supported, introverted children are often highly creative, empathetic, great problem solvers, and they love to learn – often going on to do well in school and higher education.


Read on

Top books

The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine N. Aron

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Quite Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts by Susan Cain, Gregory Mone, and Erica Moroz

The Strong Sensitive Boy by Ted Zeff


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