Close

May 27, 2024

How to Help a Shy Child

As a formerly shy child, I understand how hard this can be. I can remember certain adults feeling scary like monsters – they seemed so enormous. Changes or unexpected events could unsettle me too. I remember vividly being about four years old and running away from my Dad. He shaved off his beard and I wasn’t sure it was still him! There were other times when I was so lost in my own world that I didn’t notice I wasn’t interacting with other people. My teachers would call me “dolly day dream”. If it had been thirty years later I would (hopefully) have been sent for an adhd assessment. I was lucky to have two very kind teachers when I was nine and ten years old who actively encouraged me and did a lot to improve my confidence. I will always be grateful to Miss Dunhill and Mr. Middleton!

Children can appear shy for a variety of reasons. There may be a genetic component. Some children are more sensitive and easily overwhelmed than others. Some of us may be shy because we grew up with harsh and critical parents. This could result in us role modelling shy behaviour for our children – if this is the case perhaps you need support around your own shyness

Receiving guidance and encouragement in childhood can make a big difference and help lay strong foundations for the future.

What can you do to support your child if they struggle in social situations, even with people who you see often?

Shyness can result from your child’s way of perceiving the world. In their imagination some people might seem a little frightening, especially at first. Social situations or visiting another person’s house can feel overwhelming. Shy behaviour, such as hiding or staying quiet in the hope no-one will notice you is your child’s way of protecting themselves.

Preparation is key

Role play social situations ahead of time. With younger children you can use teddies or dolls to represent the other people. Take some time to practise different scenarios. You could play everyday events such as going to the shops or the dentist and allow the child to take different roles. If there is a specific event coming up which your child is nervous about you could play act that. It can be a good way of supporting them to understand that other people tend to be friendly. 

Role play can also be a good way of helping your child practise conversation skills. You can help them to practise a few phrases to use in social situations such as, hello, how are you, it’s nice to meet you or telling the person something they have done today. Ask them to come up with ideas or let it flow out of the play.

Some children struggle socially because they find it difficult to interpret facial expressions. You could try playing emotional charades with them. Taking it in turns to make different facial expressions and guess what they mean. A child might feel afraid of adults because they are not sure what is going on internally for them. Understanding what facial expressions mean can make other people seem less scary. Helping the child to process and understand emotions can also help – read this article for tips on how

How to help a shy child to engage - creative play

Empathise

Let your child know that you understand what it is like to feel shy and that you are on their side. Perhaps you have a story of a time when you felt shy as a child. Show kindness and allow them to go at their own pace. New environments can be overwhelming for children and they may need time to adjust.

Support and encourage your child to try things such as saying hello to a neighbour or making a phone call. Celebrate with them when they do. Allow them to go just beyond the edge of their comfort zone but not so far that they become terrified. Doing too much, too fast can be counter productive. Go gently.

Be curious about your child’s experience. Some children are naturally more talkative than others. Some like to verbalise and communicate a lot whereas others spend more time absorbed in their own thoughts and imagination. Both are valid ways of being and can bring different gifts to the world.

Behavioural experiments

Older children might be able to describe to you how they think and feel in situations where they appear shy. This can help you to understand your child’s inner experience so you know how to support them. 

If your older child or teen is fearful of social interactions you could try “behavioural experiments”. Before they go into a situation they feel nervous about, ask them to write down their best hope and worst fear about what might happen. When they come home ask them to write down what actually happened and compare this to what they predicted. Over time they will usually start to see that things are often better than they fear they will be.

Support their overall confidence

Help your child to build confidence by being around people who accept them as they are. If they feel loved and welcome this will go a long way towards building their social confidence. You can support their overall sense of safety and security through having special time together. This is time when you interact with them on their level and allow them to lead the game or interaction. With young children, get low and slow. With older children do something which is fun and meaningful to them.

Doing activities which encourage children to learn new skills can help too. Performing arts classes can be wonderful for some children, others will prefer sports or feel most at home around dogs and horses. Giving your child the chance to try a variety of activities can help them to find the one which works best for them.

It is important to find a balance between supporting a shy child to develop social confidence and allowing them to be themselves. Children should receive the message that they are loved and accepted as they are while understanding that they can grow and learn new skills. If you would like one to one guidance around helping a shy child please reach out to me; nina@journeyintoparenting.com.

Leave a Reply