Is your kid is a total chatterbox at home but clams up in social situations? Or maybe he’s always been timid (and permanently attached to your side)? According to Bernardo J. Carducci, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, shyness during childhood is very common. The good news is there are plenty of things that parents can do to encourage little ones to come out of their shell. Here, seven tips on how to help a shy child gain confidence.
How to Help a Shy Child Gain Confidence: 7 Things to Try
1. Don’t intervene
If you see your kid struggling to make friends at the playground, it’s tempting to step in and give her a gentle nudge toward the group hanging out by the swings. But Dr. Carducci warns that if you get involved, your child won’t learn “frustration tolerance” (i.e., how to deal with the particular situation that they find themselves in)—a valuable skill that she’ll need beyond the schoolyard.
2. But do stay nearby (for a short while)
Let’s say you’re dropping your child off at a birthday party. “Make it a point to stay there until she feels comfortable with the situation,” advises Dr. Carducci. The idea is to give her a chance to warm up to the noise and new environment. Stick around until she feels at ease with the group but then walk away. “Don’t stay the whole time—let her know that you’re going to be back and that she’s going to be fine.”
3. Prepare them for new situations
Imagine that same birthday party. Going to somebody’s house for the first time can be nerve-racking. Help your kid by talking her through the scenario beforehand. Try something like: “We’re going to Sally’s birthday party next week. Remember that you’ve been to birthday parties before, like at Uncle John’s house. At birthday parties, we play games and we eat cake. We’re going to do the same kind of thing, just at Sally's house.”
4. Lead by example
“Never ask your child to do anything that you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself,” says Dr. Carducci. Be warm and friendly with people that you meet (children learn by mimicking behavior), but if you wouldn’t feel comfortable walking up to a group of strangers, then you can’t expect your child to do the same (even if those strangers are her new classmates).
5. Don’t push things too quickly
Introduce your kid to new things by using the “factorial approach,” a technique where you change just one or two things at a time. For example, start by inviting that new toddler neighbor (and mom friend!) over to your house for a playdate on your home turf. Once they’re playing together comfortably and happily, change the environment by bringing both kids to the park. Once that situation becomes more comfortable, you could invite another friend to join in. Go slowly to give your child time to adjust to and engage with each step.
6. Talk about a time you felt anxious
Even less-shy kids can demonstrate "situational shyness," explains Dr. Carducci, especially during periods of transition like moving or starting school. Let your kid know that everyone feels nervous from time to time. And more specifically, talk about a time where you felt social anxiety (like speaking in public) and how you handled it (you gave a presentation at work and felt really good afterward).
7. Don’t force it
You know what? Your kid may never be the most outgoing person in the world. And that's OK. Just make sure that he knows that, too.