Parents often ask me how to help children who are “shy.” It’s a good question and one that many parents bring to me. So here’s an important first question back: What does “shy” really mean?
Some children who are considered shy are highly sensitive, meaning very aware of and strongly affected by their environment. Others are introverted, meaning that they need time away from other people to renew their energy. Some children are so absorbed in their own projects and ideas that they’re simply less interested in social interaction.
And the rest of us who think we’re “shy” usually mean that we feel awkward or anxious in social situations.
Keeping this concept of “shy” in mind, here are some tips for helping your child overcome his/her shyness:
- Nurture your child by noticing her needs and responding to them.
Responsive parenting helps sensitive little ones learn to calm themselves and manage their reactions. That allows their heightened sensitivity to become an asset, because it makes them more responsive to the needs of their peers and better at negotiating group situations.
- Empathize with your child’s worries and avoid shaming him.
Acknowledging what he feels, without negative judgment, helps him to feel good about himself. Empathizing with your child will also help him develop empathy, which will enhance his social skills and help him connect with others.
- Model confident behavior with other people. Kids learn from watching us.
That means being friendly to strangers, offering help to others, and modeling a relaxed attitude about social interactions of all kinds.
- Teach your child basic social skills to respond to both adults and children.
Kids often need to be taught to make eye contact, shake hands, smile, and respond to polite chit-chat appropriately. Make games out of social skills and practice at home.
- Help your child learn how to make friends.
Role play with them how to join a game at the playground, introduce themselves to another child at a party, or initiate a playdate.
- Coach your child to express her needs and stand up for herself in social situations.
All children need the confidence that they can handle what comes up when parents aren’t around.
- Don’t label your child as shy.
Instead, acknowledge his worries and point out that he can overcome his fears
- Teach your child effective strategies for dealing with feelings of social awkwardness.
One very helpful approach to social anxiety is to accept it as a part of normal life that affects most people, reassure yourself that you’re ok anyway, and focus on others rather than yours. Brainstorm with her how she might handle a situation that makes her nervous.
- Provide your child with small daily opportunities to interact with others.
Socially anxious children need downtime, of course, especially if they’re introverts. But they also need plenty of opportunities to practice their social skills. And remember that empathizing doesn’t mean being over-protective. Applaud every little step he takes on his own.
- Don’t push your child to perform.
Some children like telling jokes or showing off their new ability for Grandma, but many kids hate it. Enjoy your unique child without making him feel like he’s only valued if he performs.
- Teach your child that one good friend is worth many acquaintances.
Some parents worry if their child isn’t the life of the party. But what’s important is that your child feel connected, like she has someone she can talk to, or someone he wants to play with at recess. It’s not necessary to have a lot of friends, just a few good ones.
- Don’t create social anxiety by teaching young children to be afraid of strangers.
Instead, teach your child that he or she should always be with you, or with a teacher or trusted babysitter. If her special adult is with her, your child doesn’t need to be afraid of strangers. Once she’s old enough to begin walking home from school by herself, you can begin discussing how to keep herself safe.
- If your child seems generally fearful, consider that she has some fears inside that need to be expressed.
When kids experience something scary and don’t feel safe at that moment, the fears get repressed. Children who are trying to keep fear at bay often become generally fearful and even rigid. When she feels safe enough to let those fears surface in tears, welcome her meltdown. On the other side of it, you’ll have a less fearful, more flexible child.
The good news is that most kids can learn to manage social anxiety so they can connect happily with others, enter new groups, and speak up for themselves. They just need a little extra support.