Do you know any children like this?
- They “act really shy around other kids. They seem to be nervous or afraid to be around other kids and they don’t talk much. They often play alone at recess.”
- They “watch what other kids are doing but don’t join in. At recess, they watch other kids playing but then play by themselves.”
- They “are very quiet. They don’t have much to say to other kids.”
Heidi Gazelle, of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, presented this three-part description to almost 700 third graders so they could help her identify what developmental psychologists call “anxious, solitary children.” These children want to interact with their peers, but their shyness holds them back.
When they’re around other kids, shy children feel like outsiders looking in. Even among familiar faces, they often end up playing alone or just silently watching others having fun, without joining in.
The Vicious Cycle of Shyness
Many shy children get trapped in a vicious cycle that keeps them from connecting with other kids: Because they feel uncomfortable in social settings, they avoid interacting with their peers. This means they get less practice talking and playing with other kids, so they have less opportunity to develop social skills—including having conversations, resolving arguments, taking turns, or figuring out fun things to do together. Their relative lack of social skill further contributes to them feeling uncomfortable and wanting to avoid social situations.
Shy kids hold themselves apart because they’re focused on their own discomfort. For example, they spend recess time reading or silently staring at other kids from ten feet away. Unfortunately, the unintended message they send to their peers when they do this is that they don’t want to be friends.
Other kids often respond negatively to this standoffish behavior. Compared to kids who don’t withdraw from others, shy kids are more likely to be actively disliked by their peers. Shy boys tend to be judged more harshly than shy girls. (Note: The response to shyness may be culture-specific; there’s some evidence that shyness may be more socially acceptable in certain Asian cultures, according to a 2010 review by Rubin et al.)
Subtypes of Shy Kids
Based on peer ratings and playground observations, Gazelle identified three important subgroups of shy kids, each with very different patterns of social relationships. All of these kids showed the shy behaviors mentioned earlier, but what they did in addition to acting shy was strongly related to how other kids treated them. (Note: Some shy kids didn’t fit any of these categories.)
1. Agreeable Shy Kids
Although these children didn’t initiate conversation or play, they responded warmly when a peer approached them. These children were generally accepted by peers and had about as many friends as more sociable kids. Other children viewed them as reasonably fun and smarter than average. Despite their tendency to hold back, their openness to other children’s overtures—and, perhaps, their positive family relationships—allowed them to develop good enough social skills to get along with their peers.
2. Immature Shy Kids
These children usually hung back in social situations, but when they tried to approach peers, they did so in ways that other kids found babyish or annoying. For example, Gazelle mentions a girl who, after getting “out” in a game of Twister, repeatedly interrupted the other kids by asking, “Can we play another game?”—even though they were still involved in playing that game.
Other children mostly ignore immature shy kids. They are more likely than agreeable shy kids to be disliked by their peers, because they vacillate between being withdrawn and calling attention to themselves in disruptive and irritating ways. They also had fewer than average friends.
3. Aggressive Shy Kids
It seems contradictory for children to be both aggressive and shy, but Gazelle identified a subgroup of shy kids who mostly kept to themselves, but when they did interact with peers, they often did so in angry or hostile ways. Compared to both more sociable kids and other shy kids, these children struggle the most with peer relationships. They are very likely to be rejected, excluded, or bullied by their peers—partly because their behavior is so unpleasant, and partly because they have very few friends to protect or defend them.
Helping Shy Kids Connect with Peers
Standard cognitive-behavioral treatment for anxiety involves helping people face feared situations, so they can build up their confidence that they can handle them. However, the subtypes of shy kids identified by Gazelle show clearly that we can’t just shove shy kids into social situations and hope things will work out. For both immature and aggressive shy kids, for instance, their anxiety about interacting with peers is well founded: their peers really do tend to respond negatively to them!
Exposure to (more) rejection won’t help children gain social confidence. Shy kids need specific guidance in how to connect with peers in positive ways, as well as practice doing so.
Working with Your Shy Child
Shy children don’t have to magically turn into life-of-the-party extroverts in order to fit in and have friends. There is certainly room in the world for a quieter style of relating! They do, however, need to find ways of interacting that fit who they are and that lead to positive reactions from others. Here are some ways you can help your shy child to learn to get along with peers.
- Follow your child’s interests: Kids make friends by doing fun things together. An activity that your child enjoys can be a stepping stone to friendship. If your child is focused on the fun activity, he or she has something to do and talk about with peers and is less likely to fret about the possibility of being alone or getting rejected. Some shy kids just need help getting over the initial hump—after that, they’re fine interacting with peers. A favorite activity can serve as this bridge.
- Teach and practice social scripts: Most social interaction does not involve witty banter. A lot of what we say to other people is routine. Help your child learn simple social scripts through role play. For instance, greeting people with eye contact, a clear voice, and a friendly smile gets the friendship ball rolling. Asking “what” and “how” questions or giving a compliment are other useful and friendly scripts.
- Focus on one-on-one interaction: Many shy kids feel more comfortable with just one other person than they do in a crowd. Arranging and attending play dates can give your shy child a chance to practice social skills and deepen friendships. Having even one friend whom they like and who likes them back helps kids feel happier and be less of a target for bullying. If necessary, go over with your child how to behave on a play date before the guest arrives.
- Respond when others are friendly: Gazelle’s study showed that shy kids who were able to respond warmly to other children’s friendly overtures had an easier time socially. Help your child be on the lookout for kind behavior from other kids—this could be a sign of a beginning friendship! Help your child practice responding warmly. For instance, if someone gives your child a compliment, the correct response is a friendly “Thanks!”
- Imagine others’ perspectives: It takes kids many years to learn to imagine how someone else might feel in a particular situation. To support your child’s perspective-taking skills, talk with your child about thoughts and feelings as they come up—either in daily life or in books, TV shows, or movies. Talking about feelings helps kids label and understand inner experiences. Mentally putting themselves in other people’s shoes can guide kids in how to get along. Looking outward and focusing on helping others feel comfortable can also help shy kids break free of paralyzing self-focus.
- Be patient: It can take time for reputations to change. Peers may not notice immediately when your child has turned over a new leaf. Express your faith in your child’s ability to grow and learn. With guidance and persistent effort, your child can begin to build connections with other kids.
For further reading:
Gazelle, H. (2008). Behavioral profiles of anxious solitary children and heterogeneity in peer relations. Developmental Psychology, 44, 1604-1624.
Rubin, K. H., Wojslawowicz-Bowker, J. C. & Gazelle, H. (2010). Social withdrawal in childhood and adolescence: Peer relationships and social competence. In K. H. Rubin & R. Coplan (Eds.), The Development of Shyness and Social Withdrawal (pp. 131-156). Guilford.