Childhood Shyness And Children

’s Literature Essay, Research Paper

Understanding the Distress of Children Who Suffer from Shyness

Almost everyone has felt shy at some point in his or her life. Feeling uncomfortable or anxious in a new social setting is not uncommon or something to be overly concerned about; however, there are many people whose lives suffer because of their shyness. Shyness can have many harmful effects on a person’s emotional and social well being (Bruch, 1999). Even though research on shyness has mainly focused on adults, shyness can be just as difficult, if not more difficult, for children. Because social and emotional development are so important during the school years as children are meeting and interacting with their peers, we see it as very important for teachers to be in tune with these types of developmental needs. Children’s literature is a great way to bring up and discuss emotional and social issues. We found some wonderful children’s books that teachers can use in the classroom to discuss shyness, how it affects people, and how to make others feel better who are shy.

If you have ever known a truly shy child, you probably know how difficult being shy can be for that child. It can be very painful to see a shy child “desperately wanting to be accepted by other children yet not knowing what to do to gain their approval, or else too frightened to take the risk of trying to reach out to them” (Zimbardo, 1981, p. 4). A women expresses difficulty with having been a shy child:

Growing up is painful at best, but excruciating for the shy. When others could not understand the reason for my lack of zest for life, I knew all along that my shyness was the real problem. I was terribly envious of anyone who seemed comfortable with people. Anyone who could express their thoughts verbally . . . (Zimbardo, 1981, p. 4).

A child who is suffering from this much pain needs to be of concern. Anything that makes a child unhappy, such as being unpopular, not feeling comfortable around peers, and not being able to communicate thoughts or feelings directly, is hazardous to a person’s psychological well being (Kemple, 1995).

Unfortunately children who suffer from shyness frequently go unnoticed by teachers and parents. Shy children are usually well behaved, quiet, and follow the rules they are supposed to (Zimbardo, 1981). Teachers may mistake a shy child as a content child, when in reality a child could be suffering within. This is why it is so important for teachers and parents to realize the pain many children hold in due to their shyness.

After looking at the research, we found that there are three main reasons people are shy. The first, and what seems to be the most difficult for children, is shyness due to low self-esteem. In this type of shyness people are shy because they don’t like themselves and therefore think that others couldn’t possibly like them either. The second type of shyness is caused from having been teased and the fear that it will happen again. People with this type of shyness are often concerned about one particular trait of theirs or are only shy in specific situations. The last is that some people are just naturally quiet, so they seem shy when people try to talk to them. This type of shyness is not considered harmful compared to the other two since quiet people are not necessarily keeping themselves from doing things that they would like to do. We were able to find children’s literature books that address each of these types of shyness.

The one children’s book we found that we feel fully addresses the distresses that shyness can cause is Let’s Talk About Being Shy, by Marianne Johnston. Let’s Talk About Being Shy is an informational book for children on shyness. We were particularly impressed with this book as it discusses the wide range of shyness and matches a lot of what the research states about shyness in children at a level children can understand and relate to. The main issues this book addresses are: what is shyness, when people feel shy, why certain people are shy, when caution is good, when shyness is harmful, and low self-esteem. The book does a great job at showing children when shyness is normal to when shyness can be harmful to a person – i.e. when shyness keeps you from doing things that you want to do. How Do I Feel About Making Friends by Sarah Levete, another informational book, also touches on how shyness can keep people from making new friends. One girl in Levete’s book answers to: “Do you make friends easily?” states, “Not really. Sometimes I think that nobody will like me-that makes me feel shy (Levete, 1996, p. 13).

Hooway for Wodney Wat, by Helen Lester, is a book that has a character who demonstrates the second type of shyness as he is concerned of his speech impediment. Rodney is a rat who has a speech impediment in which he can not pronounce his R’s. At the beginning of the book Rodney is a shy and reserved rat who barely squeaks. All the other rodents at the rodent elementary school make fun of his pronunciations, which reinforces his feelings of shyness. It is not until the end of the book that the members of his class learn to respect his differences and accept him as a member of the class. The acceptance that the other rodents offer Rodney helps him overcome his fears of rejection.

Sometimes shyness is seen as the quality of being quiet. Some children may also show only very mild signs of being shy. These types of shyness are not harmful and should not necessarily be something to be concerned about. People who are more overt and obtrusive frequently have more problems then more quiet people. “The absence of shyness has been recognized as an antisocial characteristic since at least the time of the ancient Greeks,” (Seid, 1999, p. 43). For this reason there may not be reason for parents or teaches to push children. Teachers and parents need to see to what degree a child’s shyness is harming that particular child. Some shy children come out of their shell on their own and need to progress at their own comfort level (Zimbardo, 1981). An example of this is shown in the book The Shy Little Angel, by Ruth Brown, in which a little girl does not wish to take part in the school play. The other children try to persuade her to participate, but the little girl wishes for the play to continue without her. The little girl watches from the backstage as her classmates put on a wonderful show. As she watches she gradually gets closer and closer to the stage eventually falling onto the stage and into the spotlight. Dressed as the little angel, she makes her grand appearance. She is then showered by applause from the audience, and she overcomes her shyness. No one tries to push the girl about her shyness; she is accepted for who she is and her shyness eventually becomes adaptive behavior. A second book that allows a children to just be shy is Stop That Garbage Truck, by Linda Glaser. Henry is a shy boy who has establishes a relationship with the neighborhood garbage man, Jackson. The only strange thing about the relationship is that Henry doesn’t speak to Jackson, he doesn’t like to talk. Jackson accepts Henry like this and is always nice to him while calling him his buddy. Then Henry overcomes his shyness one-day when the garbage truck leaves before Henry’s mother is able to bring the garbage cans to the curb. Henry runs after the truck in an attempt to stop it, and then he eventually musters up enough courage to yell stop! The truck then turned around and Henry feels proud for being the hero by stopping the truck. Both of these books are good examples of situations where the shyness is accepted and the child eventually comes into their own.

Parents and teachers play a crucial role in a child’s life, because of this, parents and teachers can foster shyness with their actions without even knowing it. “Not only can a parent who is highly critical train a child [to be shy], but even the gentlest parent can raise a [shy] child,” (Schrof & Schultz, 1999, p. 52). Parents can send messages to their child that the world is full of embarrassing moments by avoiding social interaction or worrying what others think of them. One thing parents and teachers can do is to “recognize each persons individual integrity, to help them develop a sense of personal worth,” (Zimbardo, 1977, p. 189). Children most importantly need unconditional love from their caregivers and teachers so they can explore the world while being comfortable with themselves. For example in the book Owen, by Kevin Henkes, Owen has a deep attachment to his baby blanket. This attachment is so great that Owen doesn’t have any other friends, his blanket is his only friend. His parents are very concerned about this attachment and its effects on Owen. They try several tactics to get Owen to give up his blanket, but Owen will not let his blanket go. Realizing that Owen may feel better about himself when he has the blanket, his mother cuts the blanket into small squares so Owen can always have the blanket and his parents do not have to worry that the attachment to the blanket will effect his social life. In this example, Owens parents realize that the blanket is important to Owen and don’t want to traumatize or hurt his feelings by taking the blanket away, so they devise a compromise that allows Owen to build his self-concept.

Christina Frank wrote her article, “How To Help a Shy Child”, through the eyes of someone who suffered from childhood shyness. Frank offers several tips for parents to help shy children. First, she points out that parents need to avoid using sarcasm when speaking to their children. “Humiliation, in the form of teasing or sarcasm, won’t work and doesn’t acknowledge that the child is struggling with real fears,” (Frank, 1998, p. 115). Parents need to avoid comparing the child to more outgoing children. Parents also need to validate a child’s fears by saying something like, “I know going to a party where you don’t know anyone is scary,” then parents should try to offer comforting words by sharing a similar experience from their childhood (Frank, 1998, p. 115). Next she suggests that parents should refrain from being overprotective, children need to overcome their own challenges, if a parent steps in every time a situation arises, it will only reinforce the shyness. Third, she stresses the importance that parents need to model positive social interaction. She goes on to discuss calming techniques for children and other activities to help the child overcome their shyness (Frank, 1998). Informational books for young children about being shy and making friends may be helpful to ease some of the anxiety children feel. How do I Feel About Making Friends, again, is an excellent example. This book features pictures of real children going through the motions and emotions about making friends. It includes topics such as feeling lonely and difficult times, two fears that many children experience before school starts or going to a party. Another informational book that is good to share with shy children is Let’s Talk About Being Shy, by Marianne Johnston. The book focuses on defining shyness and who and when a person may feel shy. The book is excellent to share with a class that may have shy students in it. The book may make those students feel better about themselves as it shows that many children feel shy and can hurt from it too.

When shyness becomes a problem there are several tactics that can be implemented to help elevate the symptoms of shyness. For adults drug therapy has frequently been an option. Children one the other hand are usually kept away from drug therapy for the concern of side effects, but also because many children may overcome their shyness through behavior therapies, on their own, or with help from friends (Zimbardo, 1981). Much shyness in children develops from a fear that everyone is focusing on them. These shy individuals do not realize that other people are usually not concerned with their actions. Bernardo Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, “is convinced that shifting the focus away from the self is the most therapeutic thing a shy person can do,” (Schrof & Schultz, 1999, p. 55).

In Shyness: What is it, What to do About it, Philip Zimbardo (1977) suggests a deep self-analysis as the first step to overcoming shyness. In his book he has several activities that allow the shy person the opportunity the chance to get to know themselves. These activities will initially increase self-awareness, but will eventually lead to a better understanding of the self and hopefully less shyness. Next he suggests the shy person focus on their particular kind of shyness, through surveys and little activities. He then goes into building self-esteem and learning social skills. Zimbardo’s methods are just one type of behavior therapy. Other methods include counseling, and group therapy. There does not seem to be any children’s books that touch on this subject. Most of the children’s books focus on shy children overcoming shyness on their own, or with help from a friend.

There does not seem to be excessive research on children who overcome shyness on their own. This is probable because these children’s problems were probably not brought to the attention of a professional. One book in particular Orlando’s Little-While by Audrey Wood focuses on a little boy who initially is afraid to try and make friends in his new neighborhood. He is first depicted as shy but then is able to overcome his shyness as soon as other playmates from the neighborhood befriend him. Research does indicate that many shy children befriend others who are shy; this is consistent with the prevailing principle that like seeks like. “The dyadic nature of relationships with friends may deflect some of the uneasiness that withdrawn children feel in large groups,” (Schneider, 1999, p. 115). Shy children may choose friends whom they know regard them positively as opposed to other children whom they do not know their opinions of them or view them negatively. By practicing this method of choosing friends shy children avoid the fear of negative evaluation, and are able to form close friendships with other children who accept their shy attributes (Schneider, 1999, p. 116). These friendships serve to help shy children overcome their shyness. Several children’s books depict shy children overcoming shyness from the strength of a close friendship. Buster: The Very Shy Dog by Lisze Bechtold depicts a shy character befriending another shy character. In this book the two shy friends through a birthday party together, which helps them both feel better about themselves and thus a little less shy. A second book called The Blushful Hippopotamus, by Chris Raschka explores the relationship of a shy hippo with a less shy bird. The hippo named Roosevelt becomes blushful whenever his mean older sister is around. Then Roosevelt asks Lombard the bird if he is a blushful hippopotamus, Lombard continuously responds that Roosevelt is not blushful and gives him confidence to stop blushing and to ignore his sisters taunts. This conformation from a close friend gives Roosevelt the strength to overcome his shy side.

Childhood shyness is a fairly new topic, for only in the past twenty years has it really been focused on in the research arena (Kemple, 1995). Shyness can be a real problem for many children and it is important that it, along with other aspects of social and emotional development, be addressed in the classroom. Shy children need to know that they are not alone in their feelings. This can be accomplished by sharing children’s books that address these issues. Many children will not go to a teacher to express their feelings of emotional distress, especially if it is a shy child. Teachers need to be aware that shyness is an attribute that can be very painful for some children and that shy children can use reassurance that their feelings are adaptive. While researching this topic and combing the library looking for children’s books that deal with shyness, it became apparent that there is not an abundance of books that deal with this subject. We had to make a great effort to find books on this topic. The lack of shy characters in children’s books may make shy children feel even more alone in their feelings as many books focus on characters who are fun and outgoing. Children’s opinions of themselves begin to form very early on which means that teachers and parents need to reaffirm each child’s image of him or herself in order to raise a happy and healthful child. One way to accomplish this is to share books with children that have characters that they can relate to. While the books we found were certainly not bad books, we do feel that there is room and the need for more children’s books to address the complex and frequently painful experiences of being shy.


Bruch, Monroe A. (1999). Shyness and sociotrophy: additive and interactive relations in predicting interpersonal concerns. Journal of Personality, 67, 2, 373(3).

Frank, F. (1998). How to help a shy child. Parenting, 12, 114-120.

Kemple, K. M. (1995) Shyness and self-esteem. Journal of Humanistic Education and Development, 33, 173-182.

Schneider, B. H. (1999). A multimethod exploration of the friendships of children considered socially withdrawn by their school peers. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 27 (2), 115-123.

Schrof, J.M., & Schultz, S. (1999). Social anxiety. U.S. News & World Report, 24, 50-54.

Seid, R. P. (1999). Dying of shyness. Joe Weider’s Shape, 18 (7), 42-44.

Zimbardo, P. G. (1981). The Shy Child. U.S.A, Mexico, Toranto: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Zimbardo, P. G. (1977). Shyness what it is what to do about it. Reeding, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Children’s Books

Bechtold, L. (1999). Buster: The Very Shy Dog. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Brown, R. (1998). The Shy Little Angel. New York, NY: Dutton Children’s Books.

Glaser, L. (1993). Stop That Garbage Truck. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman & Co.

Henkes, O. (1993). Owen. New York, NY: Greenwillow Books.

Johnston, M. (1996). Let’s Talk About Being Shy. New York, NY: PowerKids Press.

Levete, S. (1996). How Do I Feel About Making Friends? Brookfield, CT: Cooper Beech Books.

Lester, H. (1999). Hooway For Wodnay Wat. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Mathers, P. (1991) Sophie and Lou. USA: Harper Collins Publishers.

Raschka, C. (1996) The Blushful Hippopotamus. New York, NY: Orchid Books.

Wood, A. (1995). Orlando’s Little-While; A Scrapbook. New York, NY: Child’s Play International LTD.



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