Helping a Shy Child

Once upon a time there was a child who was very shy. She did not like to talk to adults, even when directly spoken to in gentle tones. She would turn away from them and look down at her feet. When it was time for preschool, her mom thought it would be a wonderful chance to get to know new friends and start anew with interests and teachers who would draw her out. And all of a sudden, poof!, she became a confident, outgoing child that chatted away with peers and teachers alike. She shed her shy ways forever and lived happily ever after.

The above was a fantasy of mine when my daughter was 2. Her brother, though a little more open to the efforts of adults and children to engage, was also on the shy side. As you can see, the expectations I had of my children were that they should be outgoing, friendly, respectful. After all, I was all those things, so why shouldn’t my kids be? (Insert sarcastic face).

To my chagrin and embarrassment, my children would look as if they were outright ignoring and disrespectful of others during social situations. Despite some efforts of mine to ‘make them just talk already!’ it would inevitably end in frustration and despair. Would they never learn to socialize? Would they always come off as disrespectful and rude? Why can’t they just learn to converse with adults and peers on their own?

Over the years I’ve learned that my children’s temperament is their own. Some children are naturally shy, some are naturally outgoing and my way of nurturing them may have little to do with the personality they will become, because they are who they are and no amount of nitpicking will change them! The discussion of nature versus nurture is one that we won’t go into here, and honestly above me. In an increasingly global culture where communication skills are vital to participation in the workforce and let’s face it, a basic life skill, building in our children the ability to be confident communicators is an important goal. Here are some tips to help a shy child:

  • Teach social skills. Just as direct instruction is necessary for literacy skills and some mathematical concepts, social skills also needs to be explicitly taught. Children don’t just ‘get’ social skills. Modeling for your children what interactions with strangers looks like, demonstrating what to say in given social situations, talking about other’s feelings by pointing out body language and faces, helps children to understand the cause and effect of their interactions in real ways.
  • Set goals with your child and praise when you can. Maybe it’s just saying hello to the neighbor, or answering questions with one word, but set a goal that is reachable and praise your child when they do it. As my daughter has grown, the goal has morphed to being able to speak for herself in a restaurant setting; speaking clearly and using eye contact when it’s her turn to order.
  • Help your child to make and keep friends. Set up play dates with one friend at a time of his/her choosing. Help the play date along by being close by (but not too close) during play and intervening with specific words to say to help conversation turn taking. At trips to the park, facilitate conversation with other children.
  • Model and demonstrate. Our children watch us; it’s scary but also comforting to know that we are the best models of outgoing behaviors. After an interaction with a stranger, take the opportunity to talk through what you said. Role playing different social situations can be a good idea too, especially if there is one specific area where your child is extremely shy.
  • Use books. Read books with your child that feature characters who have overcome extreme shyness. Use the stories as a starting point for discussions about shyness and how it affects her life. Here are some suggestions:
    • Buster the Very Shy Dog by Lisze Bechtold. Three stories feature Buster, a dog who tries to overcome his shyness in the midst of some bossy animals.
    • Maya’s Voice by Wen-Wen Cheng. Maya has just started school, but she cannot find her voice. Children who have selective mutism or just don’t enjoy talking will especially identify with Maya.
    • Too Shy for Show-and-Tell by Beth Bracken. Sam wants to participate in show-and-tell at school, but he is just too scared. Children who hate to be the center of attention will understand Sam’s dilemma.
    • Shy by Deborah Freedman. Shy hides inside the gutter of the book because he is too shy to come out. But then he hears a beautiful bird and can’t wait to meet her. The clever concept of an unseen character will captivate children, along with the beautiful watercolor illustrations.
    • Little Miss Shy by Roger Hargreaves. Little Miss Shy is invited to a party, but she is too scared to go. But she learns that when she overcomes her shyness, she can actually have more fun.

You know your child best and helping them to extend their learning in any area of development can be challenging. In the end, we all want our children to experience and know the love and acceptance that is theirs in Christ. Encouraging your child to be confident in his/her own skin, acknowledging efforts to be more outgoing, and empowering them to move beyond their shyness all under the umbrella of God’s love are part of the journey of parenthood and we’re all walking through it together. Hope this helps!

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”- Jeremiah 29:11

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