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Helping a Shy Child

At birthday parties, while all her classmates are having a terrific time, 4-year-old Victoria Taylor refuses to join in the fun. "Instead of playing with the other children, she glues herself to my leg and cries," says her mother, Nancy, of Savannah, Georgia. "She's never able to relax and enjoy herself."

While many 3- and 4-year-olds can't wait to jump into the action, more inhibited preschoolers can find social situations very stressful. These kids can be quite talkative in the privacy of their own homes but become insecure in the outside world. Although shy kids may appear antisocial, they're actually not. "They're interested in other people and new situations, but their anxiety gets in the way," explains Lynne Henderson, Ph.D., a lecturer in psychology at Stanford University, in Stanford, California, and director of the Shyness Institute, in Palo Alto.

Most shy children are born that way, says Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Harvard University and a Parents adviser, who conducted a large, long-term study of the temperaments of children ages 4 months to 11 years. An oversensitivity to new people and situations seems to be genetic and manifests itself in physical as well as psychological ways.

Recent research by Joseph LeDoux, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neuroscience at New York University, in New York City, suggests that shy people have an overactive amygdala, the part of the brain that controls split-second emotional responses. The same fight-or-flight reaction that makes an average person flee from danger can cause a shy child to feel anxiety in everyday social situations.

Because shy preschoolers need lots of encouragement, orchestrating simple events like playdates takes extra preparation. There is no simple way to get a shy child to come out of her shell. "If you push too hard, your child will resist even more," warns Ward K. Swallow, Ph.D., author of The Shy Child: Helping Children Triumph Over Shyness (Warner, 2000). Here are five ways to help your child feel more comfortable.

  • Find a great preschool. Shy children can blossom in the right environment. Try to choose a program that has a teacher-to-student ratio of no more than 1:7 (state-mandated maximum ratios range from 1:7 to 1:20 for kids this age). Bring her to the new school several days before classes start, so she can meet the teachers and become familiar with the layout of the building. Let the teacher know about your child's shyness, and together create a plan to make your child feel more at ease. Stay in close contact with the teacher during the school year so you can work with her to address any problems.
  • Give your child time to prepare. In all situations, your child's anxiety will decrease if she knows what to expect. A few days before a birthday party, for example, you might arrange to take your child to the friend's house to meet the parents and hear about the schedule of events. Carolyn Smith, of Las Vegas, gives 4-year-old Ami weeks to get ready for new experiences. "If she has to go to the dentist, I'll drive by the office and point it out ahead of time," Smith says. "We'll go inside the office the week before to help her feel more comfortable."
  • Listen patiently. Encourage your child to talk about his fears, and try to empathize with his experience without dismissing his concerns. You might say, "Feeling shy can be difficult" or "Sometimes I feel shy too."
  • Practice at home. Make a game out of acting out different scenarios with your child, such as meeting a new kid at school. Switch roles so your child can experience both sides of the social equation. Smith helps Ami practice what to do if another girl wants to share her doll, for example, or if a rough boy tries to grab a toy she's playing with. "The repetition of role playing has helped Ami become much less fearful and intimidated," Smith says.
  • Replace pessimism. Shy behavior is often rooted in negative thought patterns ("The other kids won't like me") that cause self-doubt. Help your child reduce the critical messages in her mind by giving her positive reinforcement ("You played so nicely with that boy") and encouraging her to remind herself that she's doing okay.

Although we often think of shyness as a social handicap, shy children tend to grow up into sensitive, empathetic adults. "They have such a rich internal world," Dr. Swallow says. "They spend time analyzing why people do the things they do, and they have wonderful imaginations." In fact, some of our most popular performers, including Barbra Streisand and Kevin Spacey, have struggled with shyness since early childhood. Finally, because shy children tend to be particularly keen observers of adult behavior, let your child see that you view socializing as a fun part of everyday life. Above all, be patient. Although helping your child feel at ease in new situations may take a little extra planning, the results will last a lifetime.

Even children who are normally outgoing can be shy in certain situations. If your child has a tendency to stay by your side at birthday parties, for example, set some ground rules about acceptable behavior in advance ("You can stay with me for a few minutes, but I want you to play with the other children" or "No sitting on Mommy's lap at the party"). Clearly explain the plan in the car on the way over ("We're on our way to Jamie's birthday party now.

Once we get there, all the kids are going to play together. Then Jamie will blow out his candles, and everyone will have cake before they go home").

If you're dropping your child off, be clear about when you'll be back ("I'll pick you up after all the kids have birthday cake"). If you're staying at the party but your child is afraid that you're going to leave, reassure him that you're not going anywhere.

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the November 2002 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.