As a parent of a very shy child, I’ve worried that my daughter’s introverted personality will affect the way people see her, and might make them less likely to try to befriend her or engage with her. I worry others won’t see how amazing my kid is.
It’s been a challenge to figure out how to best support my shy child in a society that celebrates outgoing, extroverted people. I sometimes feel judged as a parent when she refuses to respond to others’ questions or comments, or won’t make eye contact despite teaching her manners. It’s taken a lot of effort and work to stop making excuses for her, to teach her the skills she’ll need in life, and to let her be the person she is without trying to make her into someone else.
Author of books on childhood shyness, Michael Reist, states, “When parents or other adults make attempts to correct shyness, the child hears the message that he doesn’t fit in. Instead, we should be teaching him that it’s OK if he isn’t the same as everyone else.” He believes we should shift our focus away from trying to change a quiet child’s personality. Through altering the way we think about shyness, and teaching our children social skills, we can help them survive (and maybe even thrive).
Here are some tips for helping your shy child:
- Avoid overprotection: Try not to “overprotect” shy kids; rather, provide them with plenty of opportunities to learn and practice social skills while offering them tools and strategies to manage their stress. For example, rather than letting them opt out of a loud crowded birthday party, perhaps you can arrive early and leave a little early—before things get really raucous.
- Avoid labeling your child as “shy.” When you label your child as “shy,” they might start to act out the “shy” role without making an effort to change. Instead of labeling, try to describe your child’s behavior in other ways. For example, you can say, “Matthew is pensive and thoughtful,” or “Riley likes to observe what’s happening around him before joining in.”
- Teach, model, and reward pro-social skills. You can use puppets, stuffed animals, action figures, or dolls to role-play social interactions. Have the dolls use specific phrases, such as “Hi, my name is …,” and “Can I play too?” And teach concrete skills, like taking deep breaths when they’re nervous. When you see your child attempting to engage others, point out her efforts and offer praise.
- Facilitate making friends. Arrange play dates for him at home, where he feels comfortable and safe. During interactions, give your child the words he needs to talk with new friends. And you may not be able to leave your child to fend for himself on these playdates—get in the mix and offer prompts and support, such as, “Ask Johnny his favorite games to play.”
- Set achievable goals: Set goals for your child for interactions and outings, such as to look at and smile at the waitress at a restaurant. Try to set goals that will be a challenge, but that she can manage. Reward her efforts to do so with a high five, a sticker on a rewards chart, or a treat after dinner.
- Let your child know how awesome she is: Shyness can serve children well in some instances. Shy kids tend to be observant and perceptive, and more aware of their surroundings than their same-age kids. Make sure to point out their strengths, and work to build their social skills without trying to change them into someone they’re not.
- Try using books: Books featuring characters struggling with shyness are a great way to normalize kids’ experiences and teach new ways to overcome their challenges. Here are some reading suggestions:
- I CAN Believe in Myself, by Miriam Laundry. It’s about a girl whose shyness impedes her ability to engage with kids in school.
- Buster the Very Shy Dog, by Lisze Bechtold. A great story for dog-loving kids about a pooch working to overcome shyness and deal with other animals’ bossiness.
- Maya’s Voice, by Wen-Wen Cheng. Great for children who struggle to talk and find their voices
- Too Shy for Show-and-Tell, by Beth Bracken. About a little guy who’s too shy to participate in show-and-tell and how he overcomes this fear.
- Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverted Kids, by Susan Cain. A book for parents of shy children.
- Know when to seek help: If your child’s shyness is impeding their ability to attend school and learn, they’re too anxious to talk to anyone outside of the house, or they simply seem unhappy, it might be time to seek outside help. The professionals at Parents Place can help you to understand what’s happening for your child, and figure out what steps you can take to get your child the support they need to succeed and be happy. Contact us today for a consultation.
Alyse Clayman, LCSW, is the Children’s Clinical Director at Parents Place in San Rafael, CA. She provides consultation and therapy to families and children of all ages.