My 3-year-old daughter, Ada, and I were walking down the sidewalk chatting when I saw a neighbor sitting on his stoop up ahead. I could feel Ada tense in anticipation of what was coming next. “Hello, there!” he yelled as we approached. Ada—so chatty a moment before—scurried behind my legs and fell silent. As her quietness persisted, the man’s smile turned to a frown. I was torn between wanting to protect her need to disengage and assuring our neighbor that Ada wasn’t rude or afraid of him. More than that, I worried that encounters like these would shatter her confidence.
We often assume kids who are quiet or introverted—as opposed to shy, a word some experts use to describe those who have true social anxiety—are unsure of themselves. “Neurologically, they’re just wired differently than louder children and react more positively to less stimulating environments,” says Susan Cain, author of Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts. But even in challenging settings, your quiet child can practice her social skills and learn to navigate our loud world more easily. These expert tips will help her break out.
Quiet children may receive unwitting messages—even from their parents—that there’s something wrong with their reserved behavior. “By saying, ‘Sorry, he’s shy,’ to another adult who’s trying unsuccessfully to engage him, you imply to your child that we see his quietness as a negative thing,” says Erica Reischer, Ph.D., author of What Great Parents Do: 75 Simple Strategies for Raising Kids Who Thrive. She suggests saying something like, “He’s feeling quiet right now.” This acknowledges how your child feels in the moment and that he may not always feel that way. In fact, he might be back to his talkative self once he’s home. By creating an environment of acceptance within your own family, you’ll give your child the freedom to hold on to who he truly is.
Check in with your child after situations that have made her go silent, like Ada’s moment with our neighbor. “Ask, ‘What happened when that man said hello to us? Did it make you feel uncomfortable?’” suggests Heidi Kiebler-Brogan, a licensed professional counselor. These kinds of conversations can help both of you better understand her behavior. Then, you can offer some tools to help her the next time. If she balks at the idea of saying “Hi,” for example, you can suggest that she wave or even just smile. This will also help her make the inevitable transition to all of the interactions that lie ahead in school and other activities.
Any of us can feel overwhelmed in a loud or an unfamiliar environment, says Cain. But while adults can usually muster the poise to muddle through it, little kids are still honing those skills. “My number-one strategy is for kids to practice, practice, practice,” says Maria Zimmitti, Ph.D., president of Georgetown Psychology Associates, in Washington, D.C. She says that gently introducing a quiet child to social situations will allow him to work gradually toward feeling comfortable and ultimately having fun with other kids. Try not to put your child in a large playgroup or force interactions before he is ready, as this can cause anxiety and lead to further avoidance. Start small with a playdate with one other kid, and over time, move up to larger group settings. And don’t be surprised if your quiet child chooses a loud companion. “A friend who’s more at ease can pave the way in social settings,” says Cain.
If a friend’s birthday party is coming up, work out some coping strategies ahead of time. Tell your child, “It’s nice manners to greet the birthday girl and say ‘Happy birthday.’ ” Then role-play that interaction together before the party so she feels natural saying it. You might also suggest that she bring a favorite stuffed animal or book to a playdate as an icebreaker to encourage communication, recommends Cain. Just try to avoid being the last ones to arrive at an event where you have to walk into a loud, overwhelming environment, she says. Get there early, so other people have to approach your child and she can acclimate to them one at a time.
Children respond well to positive reinforcement, and your quiet child is no exception. You can boost his confidence if you recognize and praise his new skills. But don’t bribe. If you promise him an ice-cream cone for talking to a friend, he may wonder why that interaction is so awful that you’ll offer a reward for it. Instead, acknowledge social strides as they occur. “If he’s having a good time at a party, make sure you tell him, ‘I see you having fun!’ ” says Dr. Reischer. “That way, he’ll notice, ‘Hey, I’m doing it!’ ”