Having a shy child can be a concern for parents: will they make friends? Will they get behind at school? Will they get bullied?
Here are 5 tips that parents of shy children can use to support their child and help them develop as individuals.
1. Do not label your child as “shy”
If the child is called ‘shy’ by others they may accept the label and conform to it, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
They may unconsciously think “because everyone says I’m shy, I need to act like a shy person does. That means not talking to adults…” Labeling a child as ‘shy’ reinforces their shyness!
So what do you do instead? Say things like: “Sarah is having a quiet day today, she sometimes likes to think things through in her head before speaking but other times she’s braver” – here you are doing the opposite, labeling the child as brave – which works in the same way as a self-fulfilling the prophecy.
Unconsciously the child thinks: “if mummy says I’m brave that means I’m brave, and I need to act like a brave person. That means saying hello in a brave way to Mrs. James”
Tell adults/children around the child not to call the child shy.
If an adult or child calls the child shy in their presence, dismiss the comment by saying something like “that’s not true, Sarah is brave a lot of the time”. Later have a word with the person asking them not to call the child shy in their presence again.
2. Do not put pressure on your child
If the child refuses to say hello to Mrs. James, do not try to force them. Telling them off in front of Mrs. James, causes the child to feel embarrassment and shame and increases anxiety levels. The opposite you want to do with a shy child. Instead, dismiss the shy behavior, say something like “Sarah is having a quiet day today, aren’t you Sarah?” – Sarah is likely to nod which encourages engagement.
Later on, when alone with your child you could tell them that it is nice to say hello to people when you see them. Ask them why they didn’t want to say hello, try to understand what was causing them anxiety. Tell them that they are brave and that next time they will be able to say hello (you could reassure them by providing an example of when they were brave in the past).
Similarly, encourage social interaction with friends but do not put pressure on your child to have lots of friends. Invite one friend over at a time or ask your child where they would like to go with a friend of their choice. The key is for the child to feel relaxed and gain pleasure from social interactions not feel anxious that there are so many people around!
Likewise, if your child is scared about a social interaction, take gradual steps and build up to it rather than throwing the child in the deep end.
For example, if the child is scared about staying alone at a birthday party, you could stay with the child at the party, then move to another room, but come back every 15 minutes to show that you are still there and then eventually (if your child feels comfortable) leave. Initially, you might leave for only 30 minutes, the child will see that you are back soon and they will feel safe. On another occasion, you might leave for a longer period.
3. Do not positively reinforce shy behavior
If the child is refusing to talk to an adult do not punish this behavior, but also do not give the child extra attention for this behavior. This could reinforce the behavior as the child may learn that they get attention through being shy. Alternatively act neutrally towards the child and later on discuss the behavior with the child.
4. Positively reinforce confident behavior
If the child shows confident behavior, for example, greeting an adult appropriately, do not draw attention to it at that moment, but later, when alone with the child say something like “That was great that you said hello to Mrs. James so bravely – I am really proud of you!”. The key is not to say this in front of the person as this can cause the child embarrassment and more anxiety – so save it for later when alone with the child!
5. Do not worry!
Shyness is a normal part of childhood; the majority of children overcome it and become confident adults.
Children are very intuitive – if you worry they can sense it and this may add to their anxiety. On the other hand, if you are relaxed around your child and accept them for who they are (introvert or extrovert) they will develop a strong self-concept and ultimately feel happy and confident with who they are.