Though I don’t ever remember being outwardly labeled as such, I was a painfully shy child. Introverted by nature, I preferred the company of my brother, or one close friend. I had no need for new, overwhelming social situations. I enjoyed birthday parties, but in those days parties were small. You invited seven friends (party supplies came in packs of 8 back then) and enjoyed backyard games or maybe a magician in the comfort of your own home. Yes, the ’70s and ’80s were good decades to be shy.
These days everything is bigger, faster, louder, and more overwhelming. And my phone is ringing off the hook with parents wondering how they can help their so-called shy kids make friends. No parent wants a child to be left out or alone on the playground. But many kids, particularly the quiet ones who are a little more introverted, have a difficult time initiating friendships.
Try some of these strategies to help your child connect with peers:
1. Stop calling your kid shy. There’s nothing wrong with being shy. Chances are you already understand this so labeling your child probably doesn’t feel like a big deal. The problem is that labels are confining. Labels define whom we are and what we believe we are capable of. When a child repeatedly hears that he is shy, what he hears is that he’s not skilled at connecting with others. I find that parents use labels to get ahead of the issue and explain a child’s behavior to other parents. The truth is you don’t owe anyone any explanations. By removing the label the message you send to your child is, “I love you just the way you are.”
2. Focus on teaching your kid self-confidence. Quiet kids shine when engaged in activities that suit them. It’s easy to fall into the trap of signing up for activities that other kids in the classroom or on your street are doing. In some ways, it makes good sense to put kids in activities with familiar faces. For a less outgoing kid, however, it’s better to look for small, manageable programs that are geared toward her specific interests. If you have an avid reader on your hands, look for programs at your local library. If your child prefers art, look for small art classes. It’s easier for quiet kids to approach new kids and connect when they are in small, intimate groups focused on common interests.
3. Respect your child’s comfort zone. It’s great to encourage kids to step outside of their comfort zones, as this helps build self-confidence, but it’s also important to understand the parameters of your child’s comfort zone. Kids who appear shy or slow to warm prefer the safety of small, familiar environments. Throwing them into new, overwhelming environments will cause them to freeze up and shut down. Concentrate on small group play (two to three kids is plenty) in familiar places to begin. Ask your child to identify two other kids that he enjoys talking to at school and arrange a group play date with them.
4. Reassure your child that it’s natural to feel anxious in new situations. Even the most extroverted among us feel that way at times. It’s essential to help quiet kids understand that negative emotions, such as fear, sadness, anxious thoughts, and anger, are very normal and all in a day’s work. It’s how we cope with these emotions that matters.
5. Discuss emotions with your child by reading together. When we read to our children, we jump into another world where we can look at things like emotions, friendship, and conflict through a different lens. Because the conflicts aren’t happening to us personally, we can step back and think about how the characters are feeling and what they can do to feel better. Look for personality traits in the stories and discuss empathy, compassion, and connections between characters. What makes two characters friends? What happens when they have an argument? How can they repair the friendship?
We live in a world that’s loud, fast, and busy. Unfortunately, it can be overwhelming for the shy people among us. Rest easy, worried parents. Once you get in touch with your shy child’s temperament and help him build his self-confidence, your shy child will begin to shine. That much I can promise.