For a shy child, everyday situations like going to school, talking to peers in class or attending social events can cause even greater apprehension and nervousness than might be expected.
“Contrary to what many believe, shy kids are not antisocial,” said Dr. Georgette Constantinou, administrative director of pediatric psychiatry and psychology at Akron Children’s Hospital. “They’re interested in other people and events, it’s just that their shyness gets in the way.”
There’s nothing wrong with being shy in and of itself. However, if shyness is keeping your child from making friends, and fully enjoying and appreciating the joys that go along with being young, there are some things she can do.
One of the best ways kids can let go of some shyness is to give them time to prepare for upcoming events and unfamiliar situations.
When your child knows what to expect, it will help decrease her anxiety.
“For a shy child, it’s important to get her acclimated to new situations in advance, put her toe in the water, so to speak, to help reduce her stress,” said Dr. Constantinou. “If she’s heading to a new school, show her where it is and set up a meet and greet with her new teachers.”
Or, let’s say there’s an upcoming birthday party. You could arrange a play date at the friend’s home beforehand. This way, your child can meet the parents and become familiar with her surroundings before the day of the party.
Parents also can communicate a leaving strategy ahead of time. For example, you could tell her, “After Sarah blows out her candles, all the kids will eat cake and then we’ll head home.”
When it comes to meeting new people, some kids find it helps to practice in front of a mirror, like they might practice lines for a play. This might help your child feel more comfortable with a new approach. Then she can practice in real life smiling, saying “hello,” or complimenting a classmate on a job well done in class or at a sports competition.
If your child still is afraid to talk to kids at school, encourage her to invite the friend over to the house. In this way, she can focus on interacting with a friend in a familiar, one-on-one setting.
“Be empathetic to her feelings and help her find new ways to meet people, such as joining clubs and after-school activities,” said Dr. Constantinou.
When joining some activities she’s interested in, whether it’s the school newspaper or a sports team, she may feel nervous at first — that’s perfectly normal. More practice will help the butterflies go away, so encourage your child not to give up.
Although it’s difficult to watch your child struggle with certain situations, don’t be overprotective. Often, overprotective parents can smother a child’s self-confidence. Also, instead of focusing on the negatives of being shy, give her positive reinforcement that she’s doing a great job overcoming her fears.
“Encourage your child to take small risks and, at the same time, help her understand that risks such as talking or sharing with others are expected,” said Dr. Constantinou. “Remind her to take things one step at a time. Breaking down the whole day into little pieces makes situations more manageable for a shy child.”
Parents can encourage suggestions to help reduce their child’s anxiety, but don’t pressure or push her. If she isn’t yet comfortable with an approach, back off. While a shy child may never completely outgrow her shyness, with parental support and by developing confidence, she will learn ways to manage her behavior.
If the situation doesn’t improve over time, seek advice from your child’s pediatrician for a possible referral to a mental health professional.