My 5-year-old daughter, Katie, is no shrinking violet. She'll boldly throw herself into any situation except one: going to a party with lots of unfamiliar faces. "Even an extroverted child will act shy in certain circumstances," says Cynthia Harbeck-Weber, Ph.D., cochair of the division of child psychiatry and psychology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. "Don't dwell on it. Instead, learn how to handle it." How? Dr. Harbeck-Weber and other experts know exactly what it takes to help your kid break out of her shell in these anxiety-provoking scenarios.
Meeting New People
Chatty 5- and 6-year-olds can turn quiet when they're with adults they don't know. With the constant reminders not to talk to strangers, it's no wonder that they feel apprehensive. To help prevent your son from clamming up during the company picnic, explain that it's okay to talk to someone you introduce him to. Decide on an easy welcoming gesture, suggests psychotherapist Yael Sank, of Soho Parenting, a family counseling center in New York City. Options: a wave, a big smile, a quick handshake, or even a high five. "Role-play with your kid to see what seems comfortable for him," suggests Sank. Then address another reason that kids feel awkward in front of grown-ups: They're not sure what to say. Practice greeting people with hello and coming up with answers to a few questions he might be asked, like "Are you having fun?"
Changing In Public
Your daughter used to have no problem slipping dress-up costumes on and off in front of company during preschool playdates. "However, at this age, she may start feeling timid about changing clothes in front of her peers," says Sank. Let her know that going into the bathroom stall is always an option, but also figure out how to help her feel comfortable changing in a crowd. For instance, wearing an undershirt or a leotard may make putting on a costume backstage a nonissue. Or at swim class she and a friend can hold up a towel for each other in the locker room.
Talking To the Class
It's common for kids who do fine one-on-one to become nervous during show-and-tell or other times they have to speak to a group. "Having your son practice at home with the whole family as an audience will certainly help," says Dr. Harbeck-Weber. "You can ask him to write down a word or two or draw a picture to remind himself of what he wanted to say. Then praise him for his efforts." And don't underestimate the power of a good-luck charm. Grasping a lucky penny in his palm or knowing he has a security item in his pocket may give your son that extra boost of confidence he needs. If he's still shy about speaking in front of his class, talk to his teacher about modifying the assignment. "Ask her if she'll let your son speak in front of just a few other students to start," suggests Dr. Harbeck-Weber. "Once he feels good about that, he may be willing to tackle giving his presentation to a larger group of children."
Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Parents magazine.