My 6-year-old son loves running, jumping, climbing . . . well, anything that ends in "-ing," really. So when he wanted to play on a soccer team, I happily found one he could join. As we piled into the car and headed to the first practice, though, he grew very quiet. By the time we'd reached the field, he was on the verge of tears and wouldn't budge from the car. "I don't want to do it," he muttered, leaving me standing by the open door and listening to the shouts over the fields, wondering what to do.
Unfortunately, it's a familiar dance for us. We sign him up for activities, receive party invitations, or even attend family functions, and my normally exuberant son quickly shrinks into the shadows. Participating in social activities is a big jump out of his comfort zone.
If you're the parent of a shy child, it can be frustrating to watch your kid struggle, especially if you're the outgoing type. The key is to help him work with, rather than against, his natural tendencies, says Bernardo J. Carducci, Ph.D., director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, in New Albany. Here are three things your child may likely be thinking, even if he isn't able to put his thoughts into words.
"I want to join in, but I can't." Don't be fooled—your child may stubbornly sit in the corner with his nose buried in a book, but he's probably desperate to participate in the fun going on all around him. Shy kids truly want to be social, Dr. Carducci says. But they feel inhibited, which causes them a lot of pain.
"Who are you people?" It takes shy children longer to adjust to new faces, Dr. Carducci says. Eventually, they'll warm up—but they need more time than you'd expect.
"I'm scared of anything new." Wallflower kids usually prefer to stick to regular routines.
Your child's shyness may never totally disappear. But with practice and plenty of gentle encouragement from you, she can become more open to trying new things and making new friends. Here are some ways to navigate tough social situations.
With lots of action and noise—not to mention the possible costumed character—a birthday blowout can be overwhelming. "My sons, Christopher, who's 7, and Austin, who's 5, are both extremely shy," says Jaimee Starr, of Springfield, Ohio. "At parties, we stick close by until they're ready to venture out by themselves." You should also arrive early. "It's much easier for a shy child to meet other guests one at a time, rather than when everything's in full swing," says Ken Rubin, Ph.D., professor of human development and director of the Center for Children, Relationships, and Culture at the University of Maryland, in College Park.
Shy kids can even be stressed out by their own birthday celebrations. "We keep our parties small and don't direct a lot of attention toward Austin and Christopher," says Starr. "If we're celebrating in a restaurant, we ask the manager to keep things low-key when the cake comes out."
One-on-one playdates can be even tougher for a shy child than playgroups, because he has to interact directly with another kid. Have the first get-together on your home turf, Dr. Carducci suggests. Make sure there are plenty of activities on hand to get things rolling.
Once your child gets comfortable playing with her friend in the house, try a change of scenery—meet at the park, for instance. After a few get-togethers on neutral ground, suggest a playdate at the other child's home, and take along one of your child's toys, which will give her a little security and comfort.
Laura Cross's daughter, Anna, 7, wanted to take dance lessons—but she panicked when her mother left her in the studio. Instead of pulling Anna out of the class, Cross set clear goals. "I told her, 'The first class, I'll sit in the corner,' " says the mom from Fuquay Varina, North Carolina. "And I said, 'The second time, I'll stay for a little while, then I'll blow you a kiss and leave.' " Each week, Cross would shorten the length of time she stayed; after a month, Anna felt confident on her own.
You should also help your child make friends with children who are involved in the activity. "If she's signing up to play soccer or baseball, for instance, go with her to the field, and sit together and watch some kids playing," advises Dr. Carducci. "After it's over, go and talk with some of the other kids about how the game went." You may also want to consider beginning with an individual sport, like karate or gymnastics, before signing up for a team sport the following year.
Large gatherings can make shy kids panicky, even if they already know many of the people in the group. When you'll be visiting an aunt or a grandparent's home for an event, talk beforehand about who will be there and whether your child has met them before—it can help to show photos if you have them. Reassure him that he can stick by you when you first arrive, and take the time to introduce him all around.
If you'll be hosting the event, ask your child to help. "Have him pass hors d'oeuvres with you and see you being social with others," suggests Dr. Carducci. Teach him to be polite and return a greeting, but don't force him to hug or kiss relatives.
It's tough for shy kids to talk to adults, and when you add in the height difference, it's even more intimidating. Review the basics of good manners with your child, and practice them yourself when you're out running errands—hold the door for other shoppers, for instance. Encourage your child to accept receipts from cashiers and say "thank you" as you're leaving stores.
There are other ways to make sure your child gets used to talking to adults. Volunteer together to deliver meals to the elderly, or let him come with you to your office. At the library, encourage him to ask the librarian to help him find a book. Even small encounters like these can boost your child's confidence.
If your child will be participating in a school play, a carnival, or another unfamiliar activity, ask her teacher what's involved, then give her as much information as you can in advance. If she'll be taking a field trip, let her see the destination's Website and photos, and talk to her about who'll be going.
It's a good idea to ask a teacher whether your child can buddy up with a pal. "The most important first step for a shy child is to just find a friend," Dr. Rubin says. Lisa Durst, of Lynwood, Washington, saw a big change when the kindergarten teacher of her son, Owen, suggested that another child pair up with him during outings. "It really helped that Owen's buddy is one of the most outgoing kids in the class," she says.
Do's and Don'ts
DON'T call your kid shy. When you label her, it gives her permission to stay in her shell, says Indiana University's Dr. Bernardo J. Carducci. Your goal is to open doors for her, not let them stay shut.
DO let your child struggle a bit. Resist answering for him when a waiter asks him how old he is, for example. Watching him wrestle with shyness can be painful, but it's better for him. "Sometimes parents see their shy child as vulnerable and overprotect him," says Dr. Ken Rubin, of the University of Maryland. "That makes it worse."
DON'T expect your child to become the most popular kid in the class. She doesn't need a million friends to be happy and well adjusted, just a few good ones.
DO expose your kid to different people, places, foods, and music. It can be tough to get her to embrace the unfamiliar, but it's worth it. "The more novelty she experiences early on, the more comfortable she'll be in a variety of situations," Dr. Carducci says.
Copyright© 2005. Reprinted with permission from the June 2005 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.