shy child

Ask the expert: Help! my four-year-old is so shy!

My shy child won’t talk to people when they talk to her and she runs to her room when we have guests.  It’s embarrassing sometimes, but mostly I wonder if I should be worried?

Shy people get a bad rap. We attach words like ‘withdrawn’ or ‘sullen’ to anyone who isn’t talkative and naturally friendly, but, really, people with this personality trait are often reserved and focused and thoughtful, which are GREAT characteristics in a person. 

With that said, shyness, especially extreme shyness, is something to work on with your child. Our world is set up to be highly socially mediated, especially in childhood. Kids are reliant on interacting with others to get their needs met, but also to gain access to learning. Learning occurs in childhood by paying attention to what others are doing, mimicking their behavior, and interacting with them to gain new skills and knowledge.  

This can be a major disadvantage for a shy child. While there is certainly nothing inherently wrong with being reserved, it does limit the opportunities that shy kids have to learn new things. 

And that’s why it’s worthwhile to help reserved little ones find value and comfort in interacting with others, so they can participate in great learning opportunities. 

So, how can you help your shy child?

  1. Treat shyness like a can’t, not a won’t. Shyness is often frustrating and embarrassing for parents. Most of the time, it’s not that a child is being defiant about social interaction, but that they don’t have the skills yet to do it confidently. Approach shyness as an opportunity to learn skills rather than a behavior problem. 
  2. Make their social interactions rewarding instead of punishing by breaking social interactions down into small pieces. If they consistently fail or feel like they are failing, they are much less likely to keep trying. While they are learning the skills to be more social, you can help them to feel successful by celebrating even small successes and praising them for the effort to be social. Success will beget success. Start small and set kids up to succeed by creating opportunities where you know they will have success…and then celebrate like crazy. 
  3. Practice the skills to socialize so that they become comfortable. Lots of times, shy kids seem to be withdrawn because they just need extra practice in typical social interactions. Make those easier by practicing them, just like you would practice putting on your socks. You can make practice fun by role playing it with stuffed animals. Also try working on these skills while you are riding in the car. It can be very helpful for kids who are learning social skills to not have to also concentrate on making eye contact at the same time they are working on the words. 
  4. Incorporate social practice into things that are already valuable to your child. Maybe your child loves to bake cookies. Take some to the neighbor and give an opportunity to talk briefly. If your child loves to talk about animals, set up a show and tell with a pet. If getting ice cream is a favorite activity, help your child place their order independently. 
  5. Make interacting with people a game to play together. Maybe you start a challenge to say hello to five people while you run errands, or create a challenge to tell one person about your new toy during the week. Whatever skills you are working on, make it fun!
  6. Utilize technology to practice. Talking to someone on the phone or through FaceTime or Zoom is often less threatening and it’s also more fun. Kids love interacting through technology and it can create an ease that makes the process less hard. 
  7. Use props. Kids who are struggling with social interactions will worry about what to do with their hands, what to say, how to stand, and all kinds of other things. Having a prop like a favorite toy to show and talk about makes the process easier. 
  8. Reward progress. Learning to socialize is hard work, so make it worthwhile. Let your child earn stickers for saying hello to relatives, and give them a prize. Give them hugs and high fives when they conquer their fears and have a conversation. Praise, praise, praise!

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