Yesterday two neighborhood children came to our door selling magazine subscriptions for a school fund raiser. The younger, a girl of about 7 was outgoing and chattered away, although it was obvious that she really had no idea of the procedure to follow when I finally chose a magazine to purchase.
Her brother, although older by a year or two, and almost a head taller, hung back and let his sister do all the talking.
I knew the boy’s name as I was well-acquainted with his parents but, hoping to get him involved with the process, I asked his name. “Preston,” he said, but his face turned red and he moved even further back behind his chatty little sister. I figured out where I was supposed to sign, wrote the check, and the two went on their way, the brother still silent until he thought he was out of hearing distance and the girl talking excitedly about their first sale.
Having been painfully shy as a child myself, I sympathized with the boy. It brought back to my mind a classmate I had in high school who absolutely refused to say a word to anyone but the teacher. Years later, I heard that he had committed suicide and felt like our class had somehow failed. Could we have done something to change the tragic way that boy’s life had ended, or was his problem something far beyond the power of a few adolescents to solve?
The point is that shyness is a common problem and it varies in its degree of seriousness. If you have a child that totally rejects any efforts you make to help him socialize, you probably need to seek professional help, but, if your child just exhibits shyness around new people he meets, or in new situations, there are a number of things you can do to help him overcome it.
1. Avoid Labeling Your Child as Shy
I remember only too well my mother saying to people, “She’s shy. Just give her time and she’ll warm up to you.” Unfortunately, labeling me as shy just made me retreat further from the people I suspected now thought of me as “different” from ordinary children. Even though I know now it wasn’t the case, I felt as though everyone was staring at me when I entered a room, and thinking, “There goes that shy girl.”
2. Provide a Non-Threatening Environment for Your Child to Interact with Others
As often as possible, plan outings for your child that include only people he knows well. The more practice he has in what he considers a “safe” atmosphere, the more relaxed he will be when an occasional stranger is introduced into the mix.
Add exposure to strangers slowly. If possible, make sure only one new contact is added at a time and wait until your child is comfortable with that person before adding another.
Try not to wait until you are in a situation where your child’s shyness is likely to emerge and then expect him to behavior in a socially acceptable manner. If you visit the library on a regular basis, coach your child ahead of time that the librarian is a friend and it would be nice if he said thank you when the librarian finishes checking out his books for him. Don’t make an issue of it if he forgets, but remind him again the next time you visit the library.
In the same way, talk to your child ahead of time when you know he will be meeting adults he may or may not know. Giving him simple phrases he can say will make it easier for him; words like, “hello, thank you, or good-bye.” Once he realizes that he can speak to someone he doesn’t know well, he will start to gain confidence that he really isn’t different from other people after all.
Telling him something about the person he is going to meet may also help. Saying, “Mrs. Jones has 6 cats, and one of them has only 3 legs,” might stir your child’s curiosity enough to overcome some of his shyness. What child wouldn’t want to know how a cat with only 3 legs walks?
3. Accentuate Your Child’s Strengths
We are often told to praise our children when they do something out of the ordinary. With a shy child, we may need to search harder for something to praise, because they tend to stay in the background. Look for special strengths and mention them frequently. If your child is good at math, comment on it. If a friend has a child who has trouble with math, maybe asking your shy child to give the other child some pointers will give him a chance to take a leadership position and learn how it feels.
4. Have Your Child Practice Social Skills
Most shy children know they are shy. It is something they probably spend time thinking about every day so have a private discussion with them about the subject. Find out what bothers them the most about interacting with others and spend time helping them practice how to act in these situations.
Work on things like eye contact, smiling, good posture, speaking clearly, listening well, but don’t try to cram them all into one session. Let him have a chance to try out and practice one trait until it becomes a habit before moving on to another. Keep communication with him open so you can discuss whether or not the current traits are working or not and how he can make even more improvements.
5. Teach Your Child Basic Conversational Skills
Finally, all children, not just shy ones, need to learn basic conversation skills. My husband and I often find ourselves seated next to a couple in a restaurant where one of the partners talks non-stop for the duration of the meal. And, not only do they talk non-stop, but the conversation is totally about the person who is doing the talking.
Do your child a favor and teach him that, according to Dale Carnegie’s great book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, the secret of good conversation is to listen more than you talk, and, when you do talk, to direct the conversation so it is about the other person.
People like to talk about themselves, and showing that you are interested in them by asking questions give them plenty of chances to do that. Give your child some questions to ask. “My dad says you play basketball. How is your team doing?” “You have a Star War Collection? How big is it? Would you show it to me some time?” No matter how shy your child is, he can win friends and learn to socialize better by asking questions and listening attentively to the answers.
The 5 ideas above for helping your shy child aren’t a magic wand. Even putting all of them into action will not guarantee that your child will suddenly turn into a social butterfly, but they will go a long way toward helping him start making the sometimes painful journey out of severe shyness to being able to enjoy the company of others.