Church and the Shy or Anxious Child

Tonya Langdon —  August 11, 2011

According to Jerome Kagan PhD, 10-15% of children K-8th grade are very shy. 25% tend to be outgoing and sociable and the rest fall in between. A shyness expert at Indiana University found the percentage of shy teens is about the same as adults which about 40%. The more  signs of shyness that appear; the more likely that the child will become more upset and will be less able to handle the situation. What are some of the signs of shyness or anxiety

  • Frequent trouble talking
  • Stammering, Stuttering
  • Speaking in a whisper or not at all
  • Look visibly anxious when called on
  • Appearing to “freeze” when spoken to
  • Sweating hands, Shaking, Racing heart
  • Blushing, Crying, Embarrassment after a minor mishap
  • Looks down when spoken to, Stays close to a family member
  • Constant thoughts of how the conversation is going to go
  • Consumed with their appearance and whether others will like them
  • Shows significant and persistent fear of social situation in which embarrassment or rejection may occur
  • How quickly they can get out of the situations that make them anxious

Anxiety is a normal emotion; however a child with an anxiety disorder experiences anxiety more intensely and more readily than others, and has excessive worry to a degree that it interferes with their life. Anxiety can be caused by separation, something catastrophic happening, fear of being  judged excessivily, trauma, all or nothing thinking. Jerilyn Ross, President of Anxiety Disorder Association of America, 13% of youth 9-17 suffers from anxiety disorders. Many children with anxiety disorders have coexisting disorders; Specific Phobias, Generalized Anxiety Disorders, Depression, Learning Disorders and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Separation Anxiety– Affects 2-3% of grade school children and involves undue distress over day-to-day separation from parents or home. They may “shadow” their parents, not letting them out of their sight. The child has unrealistic and lasting worry that something bad will happen to the parent or caregiver if the child leaves them or that something will happen to them if they are separated. Often will refuse to go to school or has nightmares about being separated from their parents. Sometimes they fear being alone. Separation Anxiety Disorder typically begins between ages 7-11 (not to be confused with developmentally appropriate Separation Anxiety in young children.)

Social Anxiety-Extreme anxiety about being judged by others or behaving in a way that may cause embarrassment or ridicule. This intense anxiety may cause avoidance behaviors, or physical symptoms, i.e. heart palpations, fainting, blushing, profuse sweating. They realize that their fears are greatly exaggerated but feel powerless to do anything about them. The anxious child will avoid the dreaded social situation at any cost.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder-Excessive and seemingly uncontrollable worry. These kids are often called “worrywarts”. They exhibit concerns in a number of areas, such as grades, friends, sports, health, safety, etc. The worry is next to impossible to “turn off”. They may have physical symptoms–headaches, stomachaches, etc.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder-Intrusive thoughts of something bad happening and behaviors that are design to ward off the bad thing from occurring. Common obsessions are fear of germs, contamination, or some type of harm or danger. Some children may have obsessions related to “bad words” or “blasphemous” thoughts.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)-Symptoms of PTSD include re-experiencing the trauma in some way, usually in a nightmare or disturbing recollections of the event. The child often seeks to avoid things associated with the trauma.

Panic Disorder– Panic attacks often occur un-expectedly and some times even occur in their sleep. Symptoms vary from child to child. Some of the most common symptoms are: feelings of imminent danger or doom, need to escape, heart palpations, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath or smothering feelings, a feeling of choking, chest pain or discomfort, nausea or abdominal discomfort, light headed or dizziness, sense of things not being “real”, fear of losing control or going “crazy”, fear of dying, tingling sensations, heat flush or chills. They usually starts feeling anxious most of the time, fearing the onset of a panic attack in a public setting.

Selective Mutism-refusal to speak in a situation where talking is expected or necessary to the extent that it interferes with every day life including school, church or social functions. Children with Selective Mutism can be quite talkative at home or in a situation where they feel comfortable but will withdraw when they are in an uncomfortable situation. Some of the symptoms are: standing motionless and/or expressionless, turn their head when they are spoken to, chew or twirl their hair, avoid eye contact, or withdrawal into a corner as not to be noticed. They become anxious before entering into an uncomfortable situation and can use the ruse of having a stomachache, headaches or generally “don’t feel good”. Some of those symptoms are frequent tantrums, crying, moodiness, inflexibility, sleep problems and show extreme shyness, sometimes as early as infancy.

How can we minister to children in your class who are extremely shy or have an anxiety disorder?
Now that you understand shyness and some of the most common anxieties in children, how can you help them in your Sunday school class?

  • Have the child breath deeply. When faced with a situation that creates anxiety it is likely that she/he will start breathing shallow which can lead to hyperventilation. Physical symptoms of hyperventilation are: light-headedness, dizziness, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, tingling sensations, chest pain, tremors, seating, dry mouth, difficulty swallowing and weakness.
  • Ask what they are interested in and use that information as a way to start a conversation with them. You can use this as a ice breaker for your class. For example: if you know that “John” likes to hike, ask who likes to hike and why. Bring it into the lesson to help the child find others with similar interests.
  • Avoid putting a shy child in situations that may seem embarrassing or stressful. Reading out loud, answering a question, being in the spotlight, etc.
  • Partner the shy child with a more extrovert child.
  • Give them a task that encourages them to move around the classroom i.e. passing out papers, craft supplies, helping fellow students if they are able. When appropriate teach the child how to enter into a group and ask “Can I play too?”
  • Take time to speak with the shy student one on one, in order to develop a warm relationship that encourages “safe” risks i.e. being called on for the answer, saying prayers aloud.
  • Let them know what to expect in your class, no tricks, no hidden agendas. The “What if” is what they are concerned with…the unknown. In their mind it is a HUGE concern so be upfront and consistent.
  • Don’t quiz the child why they are afraid as often they do not know or are unable to label what they feel. Many shy children also have shy parents.
  • Be open to hearing how the child feels. Acknowledge their feeling, don’t discount or deny their feelings. The fear is real to them.
  • Praise efforts of any attempt to stay in the class.
  • Helping the child to find his unique gift and self worth in Christ will help him feel a sense of belonging and loved.
  • Be aware of their physical needs/symptoms i.e. needing to go to bathroom for a “break”, needing a drink, others teasing, and if they are appear sad, or quieter than usual.

For more information on shyness and anxiety go to: American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

Nurturing the Shy Child by Barbara Markway


Tonya Langdon

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Tonya is married with three children. Tonya currently spearheads The Agape Connections (special needs ministry), teaches the 4th & 5th grade Sunday school class and leads a support group for parents who have children with A.D.H.D. and Behavioral Disorders at Skyline Church in La Mesa, Ca. The Agape Connections work with families who have special needs children so the entire family is able to attend church services and age appropriate church activities. In Tonya’s “free time” she is studying for ordination, writes articles and co-owns an office products business with her brother.

4 responses to Church and the Shy or Anxious Child

  1. This is a really helpful post. I am very close to a precious little one who struggles tremendously with transitions and new environments. Their behavior could easily be confused for a child who is being emotionally lazy and even belligerent if they are extremely nervous (which is not uncommon). This child is under the counsel of a behavioral professional for some of their struggles, although their Sunday school teachers don’t know (and don’t need to know).

    I think many of these issues are as or more common than some special needs diagnose we are used to seeing (CP, autism, Down syndrome, etc). And while we wouldn’t classify a child with some of the above diagnoses as special needs (from a children’s ministry perspective) these issues are really important for us to think about as we work through first time visitor experiences, big group, small group, and transitions.

    It is also worth noting that sometimes (not always) these issues are hereditary. So getting mama/daddy comfortable about where they are leaving their child (i.e. Sunday morning kidmin setting) may be as important as how we help the child.

    This article would be great to print out and put in a church’s children’s ministry handbook! Love this Tonya!


  2. Tonya,

    Thank you for speaking so clearly to a struggle for many children and their families. This is educational and practical. Home run!

    Would love to share it with our visitors at Chosen Families.



  3. Thank you Amy! The article was born out of my own daughter’s struggle with anxiety to the extent she would actually hide behind me when an adult spoke to her! Thankfully with alot of work and understanding she is no longer “shy” and seldom struggles with being anxious.