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. This is especially concerning now that much of her social and academic interactions are via video—she’s even less likely to speak up on this medium where a dozen little voices are vying for attention.
It’s been a challenge to figure out how to best support my shy child in a society that celebrates outgoing, extroverted people in the best of times, and we certainly aren’t living in the best of times right now! With some extra support, 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 during the dark days of Covid:
- 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 Zoom birthday party, perhaps you can help them turn off the video for the first few minutes, or sign off 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 her 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 his/her efforts and offer praise.
- Facilitate making friends. This is especially tricky these days, but there are still opportunities to arrange play dates that can feel safe, such as a bike ride wherein your child doesn’t have to make eye contact or force conversation. A virtual playdate, which happens in a child’s own home without the intimacy and intensity of sharing actual physical space with others, may be easier for some shy children. When your child is interacting virtually, there’s opportunity for you to do some prompting, like whispering to them, “Why don’t you ask Johnny his favorite games to play.”
- Set achievable goals: Set goals for your child to encourage interactions, such as looking at and smiling at someone. Try to set goals that will be a challenge, but that they can manage. Reward their 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 they are: Shyness can serve children well in some instances. Shy kids tend to be observant and perceptive, and more aware of their surroundings than many of their same-aged peers. 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 learn, or 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 the Center for Children and Youth can help you 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.