How The Shy/Fearful Child Learns To Expand Their World

So, I have no  research studies on this at all…this is from my own experience and observations in working with families who have had extremely shy and almost fearful children.   I am not really talking about children who are more inward; all of us are on the continuum of extrovert to introvert if we look at personality.  I am thinking hear of children who are rather socially anxious, fearful a bit… Many of these children whom I have observed were only truly comfortable with their mothers and no one else.   Many of these children were first-born children, but not all of them, and many of them were girls, but again, not all of them.  This is my special small population sample.

This is how I have personally observed this type of child’s progress into the world outside of his or her mother:

  • The shy child learns to trust his or her father.  This seems like a no-brainer, but in some cases these children really seemed to reject their fathers and other adults.  Only mother would do.
  • The child learns to trust other significant adults whom they see on a frequent basis (extended family or close family friends) and a few children in one- to- one  play settings where things are structured by the adults.  Usually the play setting is at the home of the child, or in a park or other neutral setting.
  • The child tries to enter a group play situation with mother right there by their side; they may only really play with one child the whole time
  • The child enters a group situation with mother there but further away; may need mother to come and be by them at different points; they may only play with one child the whole time
  • The child enters one- to one play setting at the home of someone they trust without mother present for one- on -one play settings; playing with a group of children at someone else’s home may be overwhelming without mother there
  • The child begins to learn how to balance playing with two children in a play setting, usually at their own home or in a natural setting.
  • The child learns to trust other adults in highly structured settings – like in a class, etc. and can function in a group held such as this
  • The child can play freely in a group, at first with only one or two in the group and then progressing into being able to weave in and out of play with many children in the group.
  • The child can speak to adults cordially whilst looking them in the eye
  • The child learns how to freely stand up for themselves in one on one play situations and in group situations and comes into more complex social interaction.

I think one thing in dealing when a child is facing this type of challenge is NOT to push the child, to have great respect for where the child is, but to provide opportunities that you feel will be helpful and  beneficial.  It will not always go smoothly, so the more you can be calm about it, ho-hum, and involve adults who can also be ho-hum,  the better.  I feel it is also important for the mother to continually express in different ways that the world is a good place, a safe place, and that other adults can also meet their child’s needs.  It helps to have children whom the child loves and admires to also be modeling this within the context of community.  Many of the children marked as shy and socially fearful really open up around the ages of six/seven or at the nine year change, if they have opportunity to try within a safe community.  I would expect three and four and even five year olds to be a bit on the shier side socially unless they have had a lot of experience with other children.  I always try to keep in mind that children in the Waldorf Schools used to start Kindergarten around the age of four and a half or five, so of course children these ages are just learning, but it is the age when many children are truly interested in having a friend or two.

Again, these are just my observations and perhaps some of you have different observations to share. If you yourself had a child that really was only comfortable with mother and has now progressed beyond that, I would love to hear what you thought the progression was and what helped your child learn to enter the larger community around them.

Many blessings,


18 thoughts on “How The Shy/Fearful Child Learns To Expand Their World

  1. I have two shy children. My first was extremely shy. I always trusted her, have supported her and never pushed her out of her comfort zone. I have always trusted that she will come out of her shell when she feels ready. This feels healthy to my husband and me. She is five now and has slowly opened up to the world. She is a very trusting confident child. She is still shy around people she doesn’t know very very well and is cautious. I have found her caution to serve her very well because she doesn’t jump into anything too quickly, unless she is sure it is a smart thing to do. She doesn’t get herself involved in any bad situations because of this, never. I feel that with our support, she has learned that the world is a safe and trustworthy place.

    • Dearest Rebecca,
      Yes, and rightfully so at the tender age of five….many of these children do naturally open up around the six/seven year mark…The children I am writing about are probably more than just shy, perhaps shy is the wrong word…shy and fearful together perhaps…Shy and confident to be a more inward person is totally different I think! Sounds like you and your husband are wonderful parents!
      Many blessings,

  2. A few other thoughts:
    – Sometimes the fearfulness and/or shyness have more to do with sensory overwhelm than they do with a child’s actual social inclinations. I now know that particular kinds of sounds and too much visual/auditory information are big triggers for my son, and there were times when he was younger when I probably mistook clinging reactions to these things for something else.
    – For that reason, and lots of others, it’s so great to avoid labeling a child, especially out loud, but also in our thoughts. To observe and comment to ourselves as parents about specific behaviors and situations during which they arise. This allows us to look for what a child might need rather than simply writing something off as merely an inherent attribute. No, a child does not need to be an extrovert, the leader of all the play/games, etc. But comfort in social settings is a skill to be developed, and one that some kids will come to more on their own or with more support.
    – Modeling comfort with things like talking to new people, and social interactions, is so important. An adult acknowledging, sometimes I get nervous when I meet new people…can also be huge, especially if a child has the chance to see/understand how Mom or Dad engages with people in situations that may still be challenging for that child.
    – Protect and respect but look for the right amount of challenge. In all things! 🙂

  3. Oh! Thank you SO much for this. I have an almost three year old daughter, my only child, and this describes her exactly. I appreciate the perspective.

  4. Thanks so much for this Carrie. It describes my daughter very well, albeit she is only 2.5 yo. Yesterday we had a play date at my neighbour’s house and I am very ashamed to say I felt embarrassed of my daughter’s refusal to go play. The other child was the same age and was friendly, chatty, and trying to engage my daughter in play while all my girl wanted to do was sit on my lap. They’d even organized water play which my daughter normally loves. I was in tears about it last night mainly because I just don’t know how best to support her through this – whether I should continue to try and gently encourage her to play, or whether I should warmly welcome her in to my lap and trust that she will venture outward in her own time when she is ready. I know she is still so young; I feel extra pressure as we are still finding our feet (and community) after emigrating and we dont have those other close adults in her life that she can look towards…

  5. I understand your perspective here. As a father of two trusting other significant adults are not a problem for them because they always stay at my parents’ place.

  6. I really appreciate this, thank you. My daughter is socially fearful and she is ten. She is not breaking out of it at all but we are just having compassion on her and know in time she will grow. She is an amazing girl.

  7. Wow… what an incredibly insightful entry! I only wish our culture saw things similarly. I often feel like I want to put a little golden bubble around my little shy anxious one, as she tends to react with anger, irritability or frustration when people push her limits. It doesn’t make for good positive feedback from adults, whether they mean harm or not. I feel like she needs all that good positive feedback from me because so few others give it to her, esp as she has (as one commenter mentioned), sensory issues that may be an underlying component of it. It’s always walking that tightrope of providing opportunities for expansion without pushing! SO tough!

    • Mama Bird,
      How old is your little one that is shy? I think a major piece in helping your daughter is to have an understanding and supportive community..

  8. Thank you so much! This came at such an appropriate moment for me, as we have been really struggling lately with how to deal with my son (he will be 3 next month). This describes him perfectly, and really gives me the insight that a lot of the “issues” we have had with him do indeed stem from his shyness/fearfulness, and that we need to address that in a better way.

    • Mpeachase,
      Please do remember that a tiny two and three year old really doesn’t see themselves as separate from you at all, and I think the expectation for social situations for that age should be low….Four and a half is really the age in which Waldorf Kindergartens would start in the past, and I think that is still the age to begin moving children slowly into the social realm… That being said, I hope i don’t sound contradictory when I say a supportive and lovely community is welcome for all ages, and those children involved in those types of situations (great and loving community!), I find, tend to see the world as good and are trustful that things are good…
      Just my opinion! Take what resonates with you!
      Many blessings this season of Light,

  9. My daughter is almost 3, and is only shy around one particular group of people. She is boistrous, sociable, and relaxed in most settings (playgroup, family, chatting w strangers in the grocery checkout line). However, since she was about 16 months old, she shuts down completely around one particular family, who are close friends of my husband and me. Her brother enjoys their company. I can’t pinpoint anything they have done to trigger this. But it is undeniable–when she’s around them, she wants to be held by me, turns her head into my shoulder, averts her gaze…it is really dramatic. If this family is at a gathering, she behaves that way the entire time, even if it is just a small picnic in our yard. Of course, we have really cut down on how much time we spend together w the kids because of this. But I wonder if there is anything else I can do.

    • SLD — your daughter is so tiny; I would expect her to be shy! I would say if it is just one family and you are close to them, do your best to keep your daughter near and respect her voice. If there is nothing going on, it is likely she will grow out of it. Until then, I would bring toys for her to play at your feet.

      Many blessings,

  10. this is so very timely – my oldest is 10, approaching 11. She has always been very shy – and was a child who was easliy overwhelmed with noise, people, chaos, etc. She still is easily overwhelmed by too many people, particularly strangers (def not a party girl!)…..and I’ve just kind of let her do her thing – and to encourage and teach her that it’s perfectly fine to leave a gathering (politely) for a few minutes for a breath of fresh air and some solitude. My concern for her these days, as she really begins to be socially aware and socially sensitive is that she really has very little interest in girls her own age and would much rather talk with and hang out with adults……I think that since we’re not all that engaged in popular culture, Gracie just doesnt’ find most of what other girls talk about all that interesting. And I’m just not sure if this should concern me, or why it should concern me…..

    • Mary,
      I think some children need few friends..does she have any close friends her age at all? Are there any activities that she really loves? Some children who are not into popular culture, like many of the children of the mothers who read this blog :), still get along great in art, or 4-H, or at a place of worship. Sometimes having an outside adult who can really take interest in them, and then introduce them to other children there own age also really helps.

      I don’t know as it should be a worry, but I do think connecting her to a few of her peers in a safe and secure environment might be lovely.

      Do you have good family friends that she enjoys too? Sometimes just families coming together is all the social some children need, even if the childrne are different ages.


  11. Hello Carrie,
    This is the first time I have read your blog – I love it. Mostly because this is the first time I have ever read something that so perfectly described my own child. Arlo was so frightened of groups – even as a baby in Mother’s Group, he cried if we were indoors. As he grew I was unable to take him into enclosed rooms – not the library, museum, another house. That was ok because we have a forest behind us and the ocean in front so we just walked all day long. He did not want anyone else – sady not even his very loving father – for more than 2 years he pushed my husband away. He is four now – and he has a few friends, he adores both his parents, and his grandparents now. He also loves a few of my friends.
    A big point for us was when he was 2 1/2. We read the Hairy Maclary books, and in one of the there is a character called Scarface Claw – the toughest tom in town. Arlo was upset that a cat could be mean – we assured him that the cat was not so much mean, as was feirce and strong and did not let dogs pick on him. We went on a holiday to Europe – Arlo brought Scarface Claw with us – he was hiding on the plane, making sure Arlo was safe, he was “over there’ behind the garbage bins, keeping Arlo safe. Slowly slowly our son tuened into a cat – he’d hiss when he was scared, he wears a tail – every day and every night, it only comes off for a bath. No-one bothers hm about his dual nature – in fact one parent at the day care was a troubled by the tail “what will you do when he goes to school?” – Isuggested that as he was then two I have a few years before I’d have to consider it. But another mother took me aside and told me that her son asked if she would make him a tail like Arlo’s. She asked him why and he said “Arlo is shy too, and his tail gives him confidence and makes him strong. Maybe I will be stronger too”. This boy was almost two years older than Arlo, and had a reputation for being a bully. He was just a scared boy who didn’t know how to find his place.
    Anyway, my son is still a cat – and I love thinking of him with a dual personality. This tail, this cat personification allows my son to experience the world – he is still sensitive, and tentative aorund people, he cannot stand loud noise, but he is a joiner in his own way now. Unless you have had one of these sensitive children, I don;t think you can understand the joy that one feels when their child participates with enthusiasm. Indeed my own friends cry now when they see Arlo doing things on his own.
    Thank you for this post. I loved it.

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