How to Support Shy Kids
Recently at an outdoor concert, I watched a self-assured young boy spot twin girls playing nearby, walk up to them and ask, “Can I play with you?” He was quickly assimilated into the group and soon the three of them were happily playing together although they were never formerly introduced and probably didn’t even know each other’s names by the time they parted. In contrast, another child, even when urged to go play, clings to his mother and doesn’t venture outside of the circle of family.
As a school counselor for twenty years, I often heard from parents who were concerned that their child was shy. Shyness or social anxiety is a label that is overused. Most of what we consider shy is actually a feeling of discomfort or awkwardness in unfamiliar social settings. A large study by the National Institute of Mental Health in 2011 found that half of all teenagers in the United States consider themselves shy. Half of all adults also think they are shy and even more say they were shy as children. That’s a lot of shy people!
Regardless of whether your child is extremely shy or just has difficulty in new situations, here are some tips to nudge them in the direction of more confidently and happily engaging in interactions with others. P.S. They also work for adults:)
- Avoid shaming, embarrassing or labeling a child as “shy”. Pointing out to other adults or children, that “He’s just shy and he might join you later” is often more a way of saving face for ourselves as adults, than it is a productive way to help a child feel comfortable and engaged. It sets up an expectation and a scenario for the child to repeat in other situations as well.
- Teach children how to meet others and how to be a good friend. You wouldn’t assume that your child is born knowing all their colors without teaching them. In the same way we should not assume that all children instinctively know how to make friends. Suggest things to say and do when they meet someone new. Read books and watch movies that share good social skills. Then role play what they have learned. After a social event, discuss how it went, what they could do differently and point out examples of good social skills.
- Empathize with and normalize feelings of discomfort and awkwardness in new social situations. Then model confident behavior that your child can learn from. Teach your child how to make eye contact, shake hands, smile and make small talk. Some children need you to suggest basic things they can say, for instance, how to introduce themselves and how to join in a game or activity. You can role play or even use puppets to teach these skills.
Wyatt the Wonder Dog Learns about Friendship
It’s not easy being the new kid at school, especially if you are a cat and everyone else is a dog. How do you make friends? Can you even be friends with someone who is totally different from you? Wyatt the Wonder Dog helps solve Ami’s friendship problem with empathy and compassion. A great story for teaching children the critical life skill of making friends.