By now your child has reached elementary school age and you feel pretty well in tune with his personality -- his shyness is just part of the package. Still, you wonder how you can make life easier for him. The key is to avoid the two opposing -- and perhaps equally strong -- temptations to pressure and overprotect him. Trying to get him to be more outgoing will only make him retreat. And sheltering him denies him the chance to enjoy group activities or become comfortable in social situations. You have to walk a tightrope, promoting social behavior with compassion. Here are six ways to help your shy child during the elementary and middle school years.
Understand your child's shyness
If you know what triggers your child's shyness, you can help him overcome it. Some children are shy from birth and have a genetic predisposition to be that way. Other kids are shy only during certain situations that make them uncomfortable or afraid. These might include:
- Meeting new people
- Entering new situations
- Being singled out or being the center of attention
- Not knowing how they're expected to act or what they're expected say
- Being laughed at, embarrassed, or teased
Kids also feel shy when they don't have the social skills necessary to feel comfortable during a particular scenario. A child who hasn't spent much time around large groups of people, for instance, is more likely to want to avoid them. A child with low self-esteem or one who's been pushed hard academically may be afraid to fail, leading to shyness. Watch your child closely to see what triggers his shyness. Once you understand his anxieties better, you can talk them through and work together on ways to overcome them.
Banish the shy word
Labeling your child as shy only makes him feel even less confident. Furthermore he may come to see it as a permanent disability. Instead, put a positive spin on his shyness. How else might you describe your child to yourself and others? Maybe a more accurate characterization is "slow to warm up"; rather than withdrawing from or avoiding new situations, he just takes his time and sizes up the scene. This can be translated into a compliment: "You like to think things through," or "You like to get started slowly." As time goes on, your child can adopt this more positive view of himself and use it as a rebuttal if someone calls him shy.
Practice difficult situations
In an uncomfortable situation, a shy kid experiences the same physiological reactions that adults do. Your child may feel shaky, get sweaty, or turn red. His heart may race, or he may get a frog in his throat. If his reaction is visible to those around him, he may get even more embarrassed, setting up a cycle of awkwardness each time he has to step up to the plate.
With practice and reassurance, though, your child can prepare for those moments that throw him for a loop. You and he can talk through the situations that make him nervous or, if your child is willing, even act them out together. He may giggle and think it's silly to practice saying hello at a birthday party or introducing himself to the soccer team, but he'll also begin to feel more confident in his ability to be friendly and relaxed.
You might also remind your child that it's normal to be nervous when meeting someone new, starting a new class, or being called upon by a teacher to speak. Describe one of your own flustered moments to show that most people have the same feelings.
Find the comfort zones
At school, shy kids often have a hard time figuring out where they fit in. This is a situation in which it's okay to make suggestions. You might encourage him to get involved in activities by discussing the value of participation and then helping him discover a sport or activity he likes to do. The key is to find something that suits him -- perhaps where he can be part of a team but still function as an individual, such as running cross-country or singing in the chorus. When he realizes he's good at something, his confidence will rise, and so will his enthusiasm. If he really resists, though, don't turn it into a power struggle. In a low-key way, keep making suggestions and trust that he'll be drawn into an activity eventually.
Watch for danger signs
Shyness should be a bump in the road, not a roadblock. With some anguish and a certain number of false steps, even very shy children can learn to forge relationships and cope when the spotlight is on them. They may have fewer friends than other kids, but those friendships will be just as close.
In rare cases, however, a child is so shy that he begins to avoid all interactions. If you are concerned that your child's shyness is isolating him or undermining his ability to function, seek help from a school counselor or your family pediatrician. Either may have valuable advice and can refer you to a specialist if necessary.
Know when to back off
All you want for your child is a happy and untroubled life, but there's a fine line between helping him cope with situations that make him feel shy and wounding his fragile self-esteem with frequent suggestions about how he can become more outgoing. By accepting your child as he is, you can help him accept himself. It may help to remind yourself that your child's temperament isn't a reflection of your parenting skills. As long as he has some friends, is reasonably happy with himself, and can function as a student and family member, all is well. Praise him for his efforts to be social, provide advice when asked, and leave it at that.
For more information on shyness and other worrisome behavior in adolescents, contact:
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
The American Counseling Association
Free Spirit Publishing
Free Spirit Publishing is a publisher of nonfiction self-help resources for kids, teachers, and parents. The site includes questions by kids and answers by experts about issues such as privacy, teasing, and dealing with bullies.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, P.O. Box 96106, Washington, DC 20090-6106; http://www.aacap.org/publications
The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, (800) 374-2638; http://www.aamft.org
The American Counseling Association, (800) 545-2223; http://www.counseling.org
John Gottman, Joan Declaire, and Daniel Goleman. Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting. 1997. Simon & Schuster.
Daniel Goleman. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. 1998. Bantam Books.
Brazelton, T. Berry, MD. Touchpoints: Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development. 1994. Da Capo Lifelong Books.