Personalities are complex, and we need to respect individual tendencies to interact in ways that are natural and comfortable. As parents it is important to respect the uniqueness of each of our children, but we can scaffold their social development
Keep in mind that shy kids are also self-reliant, thoughtful, intuitive, great listeners, and very empathetic. The world will likely be a gentler place because of them.
Once parents recognize these natural behaviors, and embrace the positive side, they can work with them instead of against them. It is possible to help a shy child learn to be more confident and comfortable around others.
Tips for Helping a Shy Child:
1. Avoid labeling your child as “Shy.”
If people say your child is “shy,” gently correct them in front of your child. For example, “He’s not shy – he just takes a little while to get comfortable and then he’ll join in.”
Or: “Susie likes to think things through before rushing in.”
Listen to your child in any situation and encourage her to talk about her fears.
Let her know that you have faith in her: “I can see you’re feeling a little worried, but I’m really confident you’ll be able to handle it.” Help your child have a positive view of herself.
(I still remember an important tip my grandfather gave to me. I moved to a new school in the middle of first grade. I was terrified to try to meet new friends. My grandfather said, “just look at friends in your class and smile.” I think of that advice often as I have learned that making eye contact and connecting with a smile is a powerful way to open up a conversation.”}
2. Lay out expectations for your child before you arrive at a destination.
Think about times when your child is particularly clingy and then role-play to rehearse
those situations. In all situations, your child’s anxiety will decrease if she knows what to expect. Make a game of it, such as meeting a new child at school. Switch roles so your child can experience both sides of the social equation.
For example, you can state, “when we arrive at the birthday party, you will see Cindy, Mary, James, and a few other children from the neighborhood. You will play some fun games outside, then you will come inside, sing a birthday song, and eat birthday cake. Then you will watch Matthew open some birthday presents. I will come and pick you up when the party is over.”
3. Model positive social behavior.
Children learn from watching others so show them how to act: introduce yourself to new people, be kind and outgoing, ask people for help, give compliments to friends, thank others for their time.
Take time to practice the art of confident interaction. For example you can practice how to face someone with your whole body, look directly at them, and answer questions in a voice that the person can hear.
What seems intuitive to you may not be to your child. Practice and repetition helps build confidence in any social engagement.
Normalize doubts: Let your child know that “everyone feels unsure from time to time.” Share some of the challenges that you have to overcome. For example, you may explain, “Sometimes I feel worried about speaking up at work, but I always make an effort and feel good afterwards.”
And don’t push too hard – let your child approach situations at his own pace, not yours. Your child may stay near your side longer than you feel is necessary in public places. Even though you may feel a need to tell her to go out and mingle, her need may be to stay near your side. It is okay to give her time to feel comfortable.
4. Praise your child for “brave” social behavior.
For example, “David, I liked the way you said hello to the boy in the park. Did you notice how he smiled when you did that?”
Or: “You met a new friend today even though you felt nervous, that was really brave.” This will help your child to develop an inner sense of achievement and pride.
Avoid over-comforting your child. It sends the message that you think this is a scary situation. This might accidentally reward your child’s shy behavior. Let your child know you’re confident about her ability to handle social situations.
5. Provide opportunities for your child to be with other young children.
Preschool is a wonderful way for your child to learn to interact with others and find new friends. The routine of participating with children in shared activities helps your child feel at ease with other children.
Arranging play dates is another way for your child to interact and learn about the “give and take” of playing with a new friend. Play dates at a friend’s house gives your child skills to adjust to new settings. (You may need to stay with him for a while at first, but you can gradually reduce the time you stay with him.}
Encourage other activities, also with a step-by-step approach. For example, if your child wants to do ballet but is nervous about being in a class, take her to watch the group for the first week, then suggest she joins in the next week while you stay in the room. Then build up to leaving the room for brief periods. Before long, she should feel comfortable.
Give your child chances to use and practice their social skills. In the store, encourage him to pay the cashier. At dinner in a restaurant, have her order her own meal. Give them the chance to speak up for themselves instead of you doing it for them.
And above all, show love and acceptance. Let her know it’s OK to feel shy at times.