Q&A: Overcoming fear of social interaction


Our daughter is painfully shy. As a toddler, she would run behind my (Mum’s) legs when guests visited. Even now, as a young teenager, she struggles to look people in the eye. She does well in school, but we’re still concerned. How can we help our girl overcome her fear of social interaction?

Answer: First, let’s clarify a common misconception. Author Susan Cain points out: “Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating.” Some introverts are shy, and many shy people are introverted. But those aren’t synonymous terms.

Shyness is usually a personality trait; it’s not that children want to feel timid around people, they just do. With some patience and encouragement, parents can help shy children develop confidence in social settings. Shy people feel most timid in unfamiliar situations. An obvious solution is to make those settings feel more predictable and routine. Create opportunities for your daughter to venture into unknown territory with you by her side. Have her order her own meal at a restaurant, for example. Or accompany her while she asks a sales associate a question. The first few times you may even coach her in what to say. But you’ll gradually be able to pull back until she’s handling the situation on her own.

Remember, too, that you’ll probably have to repeat this process for each new situation. Ordering her own meal, for example, won’t help her feel any more prepared to make phone calls or set appointments. But with each new task she conquers, her overall confidence should grow.

A shy child will likely always be shy. But handled properly, shyness can be a gift. Shy children tend to grow up to be sensitive, caring adults, who show a high degree of compassion for others. They just need some help from you to learn how to manage their shyness well.

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