Half of all adults think of themselves as shy, and many more say that they were shy as children. Geneticists believe that shyness is greatly influenced by our genes, and developmental psychologists explain that wariness around strangers, or in new situations, is an adaptive trait for children who find themselves unprotected by parents.
But shy kids are at a disadvantage in our outgoing, busy culture, because they have a harder time relaxing and connecting with others. It can keep kids from learning the social skills that let them be part of a group, and it can compromise their school performance by making them anxious about asking questions.
Worst of all, shy kids can begin a pattern of isolation that keeps them from meeting others, beginning friendships and romances, and simply connecting with other human beings. Scientists now think that social contact is one of our most important human needs, positively impacting our emotional and physical health on every level throughout our lives.
The good news is that shy kids can learn to manage shyness. They just need a little extra support. So what's the best way to help your child overcome shyness?
Nurture your child by noticing her needs and responding to them. Shy baby chimps given to extremely nurturing mothers became leaders in their group, while their shy siblings raised by average mothers remained shy and fearful throughout life. Responsive mothering helps shy little ones learn to calm themselves and manage their reactions. That allows their heightened sensitivity to become an asset, because it makes them more responsive to the needs of their peers and better at negotiating group situations.
Empathize with your child's shyness and avoid shaming him. Acknowledging what he feels, without negative judgment, helps him to feel good about himself. Giving him the impression that there is something wrong with him will just make him feel worse about himself, and therefore more insecure and shy. Empathizing with your child will also help him develop empathy, which will enhance his social skills and keep him connected to others.
Model confident behavior with other people. Kids learn from watching us. That means being friendly to strangers, offering help to others, and modeling a relaxed attitude about social interactions of all kinds.
Teach your kids basic social skills. Kids often need to be taught to make eye contact, shake hands, smile, and respond to polite chit-chat appropriately. Role play with them how to join a game at the playground, introduce themselves to another child at a party, or initiate a playdate. Kids who are successful in joining groups of kids usually observe first, and find a way to fit into the group, rather than just barging in. Make games out of social skills and practice at home.
Help your child learn how to make friends. Most kids need to learn social skills, and benefit from a little extra help. I particularly recommend the book How Kids Make Friends ... Secrets For Making Lots of Friends No Matter How Shy You Are, by Lonnie Michelle.
Coach your child to handle teasing and bullying by role playing and encouraging her to stand up for herself. A terrific book to help you help your child, offering scripts and strategies, is Sticks and Stones: 7 Ways Your Child Can Deal with Teasing, Conflict, and Other Hard Times by Scott Cooper.
Don't label your child as shy. Instead, acknowledge his feelings and point out that he can overcome his fears. For instance, "Sometimes it takes you awhile to warm up in a new situation. Remember Billy's birthday party, how you held my hand all through the games? But by the end, you were having lots of fun with the other kids."
Teach your child effective strategies for dealing with shyness. The general rule of thumb is to accept the nervousness that comes up as a part of normal life that affects most people, reassure yourself that you're ok anyway, and focus on others rather than yourself.
For instance, remind your child that she doesn't have to be interesting, just interested, and teach her to ask other kids questions and listen to their answers. Brainstorm with her how she might handle a situation that makes her nervous: "If you feel nervous at the party today, what could you do to make yourself more comfortable? Could you hang out with one of the kids you know from school? Could you offer to help serve the refreshments? What do you think you might talk with the other kids about?"
Provide your child with daily opportunities to interact with others. Shy kids need downtime, of course, but they also need plenty of opportunities to practice their social skills. And remember that empathizing doesn't mean being over-protective. Applaud every little step he takes on his own.
Don't create social anxiety by teaching young children to be afraid of strangers. Instead, teach your child that he or she should always be with you, or with a teacher or babysitter. If her special adult is with her, your child doesn't need to be afraid of strangers. Once she's old enough to begin walking home from school by herself, you can begin discussing how to keep herself safe.
Dr. Laura Markham