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How to Help Your Shy Child

Young girl hiding behind her mom

Most days, it seems like your preschooler's mouth never stops moving -- she can fill every hour with questions and comments. But put that same little chatterbox in an unfamiliar setting -- a playground full of new kids, for example -- and she turns bashful or hides behind your legs. Does she have a split personality?

Chances are your child's timid behavior is a natural part of her personality. In fact, many kids are born with a tendency to be cautious in new situations, says Bernardo J. Carducci, PhD, author of The Shyness Breakthrough. Times of transition intensify shyness, so the preschool years can be especially tough for reserved kids -- they're making huge developmental strides, and their world is expanding dramatically. Even ultra-confident children can turn timid when they're faced with the unexpected. But there are simple ways to boost your child's confidence, even in the most trying situations.

Strangers

Timidness trigger: You bump into a friend you haven't seen in years while you're out shopping. When your pal asks your child his name, he stares at the ground.

Why so shy? Many kids clam up around unfamiliar adults because there are so many expectations about how they should act, says Gregory Markway, PhD, author of Nurturing the Shy Child. "We want them to make eye contact, smile, and talk, when their first instinct is to pull away." Plus, the sheer size of some adults is enough to make little kids cower. And after hearing you tell them repeatedly not to talk to strangers, who can blame them for their reluctance to speak up?

How you can help: Chat with your friend for a minute before making introductions. When your child sees that you're comfortable with this person, he'll feel reassured and will be more likely to talk, says Dr. Carducci. Ask him to say hello, but if he won't, don't push it. Talk later about why he felt uncomfortable and help him practice handshakes, introductions, and conversations with his stuffed animals. Just don't expect too much too soon. Aim for a smile first; he'll become more talkative with experience.

Timidness trigger: You and your child visit the playground one afternoon but don't see any familiar faces. You suggest that she ask some of the kids to play, but she won't even try.

Why so shy? Approaching a group is scary even for adults -- imagine if you walked into a party full of strangers. "All social situations are somewhat unpredictable," says Dr. Markway. Preschoolers crave familiarity and routine -- and fear rejection (like everybody does) -- so these situations are nerve-racking.

How you can help: Start small. "It's less intimidating to meet people one-on-one," says Stanley Turecki, MD, author of The Difficult Child. If that's not possible, suggest she talk to a small group of kids instead. When she's ready, help her find an opening. Say, "It looks like those kids need some new blue chalk. Maybe you could bring your box over." If she hesitates, offer to go with her and help make the introduction.

Modeling good social skills helps too, as Michelle Grotz-Rhone, of Beverly Hills, discovered when her family moved. "My 5-year-old, Nina, was always so quiet when I dropped her off at her new school, and I wanted her to be her usual sunny self," she says. But instead of focusing on Nina's shyness, Grotz-Rhone started conversations with Nina's classmates and their parents. Later, she'd compliment the other kids' friendliness to inspire Nina to copy their behavior. For example, she'd say, "It was so thoughtful of them to invite us over" or "I really liked how nice she was."

Timidness trigger: Your cousin's wedding sends your child into leg-clinging mode -- you have to pry him off just to go to the ladies' room.

Why so shy? Kids often find large, noisy gatherings like weddings and parties stressful because they don't know what to expect or how to act. Crowds -- especially those filled with strangers -- can be overwhelming for people of all ages. And most children are unnerved when relatives they barely remember greet them with a big hug and kiss.

How you can help: Talk about the event beforehand in simple terms, says Dr. Markway. If you're going to a wedding, for instance, say, "It'll be like going to church. We'll sit in the pew for a while, and later we'll go to a party." You can also show him your wedding video and look at pictures of family members he hasn't seen in a while.

At the reception, let your child stay close if he wants but draw some boundaries, says Dr. Turecki. Let him stay near you at first, but tell him that he needs to sit at the kids' table at dinner. When you introduce him to other children, point out things they might have in common to get the ball rolling: "Jimmy is 5 too. His favorite dinosaur is T-Rex. What's yours?"

Silent During Sing-Alongs

Timidness trigger: While all the other kids in your child's preschool class happily belt out tunes at the spring sing-along, she won?t even move her lips and looks like she's about to cry.

Why so shy? Some kids may love being the center of attention, but others may find the mere idea of performing paralyzing. They're scared of making a mistake and being embarrassed, but often they can't verbalize this fear. And even if they can, they worry that others will think they?re weird for being nervous.

How you can help: Practice together before the show -- sing songs in the car or during bathtime -- to ease her anxiety. Let her know that you'll be proud of her no matter how well she does, and that it's okay if she doesn't want to participate, says Dr. Turecki. Some kids just don't like performing no matter what, like Evan Hollihan, 5, of St. Paul, Minnesota. "We wanted him to perform in school because he's really animated and funny, but he was so uncomfortable doing it that it seemed mean to push him," says his mom, Rosemary Williams. Now she sometimes asks him to sing a song for a friend, but if Evan clams up, she knows to back off. Being forceful is guaranteed to backfire, but gentle encouragement can help your child feel more comfortable in the spotlight.

Help your child become more independent and socially savvy by having her practice these skills.

You girl smiling and looking independent with her mom standing in the background

  • Answering the phone.
  • Ordering her meal in a restaurant.
  • Handing money to the cashier at a store.
  • Calling a friend to make a playdate.
  • Saying "please" and "thank you" to unfamiliar (but safe) adults.

The Science of Shy

You were painfully timid as a child, and now your preschooler seems to be taking after you. Is there a connection? Yes, according to a recent study published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. Researchers have discovered what they call "the shy gene," which is passed down from parent to child. But not to fret, most kids with this inherited trait get over their bashful phase by age 7 if their parents have a social outlet. Remember, preschoolers take their cues from you -- and shy kids are especially observant. So make sure your child sees you interact with friends in social situations.