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Parenting Tips for the Shy Child

written by: LauraLMSW • edited by: Amanda Grove • updated: 8/2/2012

How do you help introverted children to get out of their shell and succeed in making friends? First, understand what it means to be shy, and try some of these strategies to encourage your child.

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    Be Your Child’s Biggest Fan

    Overcoming debilitating shyness is a challenge that requires unwavering parental support. Introvert social skill development relies on teaching, practice, and patient guidance from parents. Ramsey (2003), author of 501 Ways to Boost Your Child’s Self-Esteem, said that parents are the most significant influence in the lives of children; it is their job to help them experience success, make mistakes without shame, and grow up proud of who they are.

    Introverted or shy children often need help finding pride in who they are and in their capabilities. Hartley-Brewer (2004) said that a parent’s prime responsibility is to nurture the whole child and to encourage self-motivation because children’s future behavior, life-chances, talents and fulfillment are significantly determined by parents in the early years. Shy children need a trusted adult to help them discover their strengths, weaknesses, and how to navigate social interactions. Parents should focus on and highlight the positive attributes instead of ruminating on negative outcomes due to shyness. The children will aim to recreate the successful use of social skills in order to feel good about themselves as well as to receive parental recognition and praise.

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    Getting Started: Taming Timid

    Markway & Markway (2005), authors of Nurturing The Shy Child, offer several building blocks for addressing shyness including acceptance, supportive listening, positivity, restraint from the use of labels and employing patience. Acceptance of shyness helps to alleviate suffering for both the child and parents. Resisting the existence of shyness will not produce good feelings for children and will hinder the development of desired pride.

    Listening is critical because children who feel valued and understood are more likely to have healthy self-esteem and be more willing to cooperate with the encouragement of risk taking to overcome their shyness (Markway & Markway, 2005). If you understand what your child’s concerns are, you will be better able to offer practical perspectives and advice. Sometimes just letting a child process their worries aloud will be enough for them to relieve anxiety and move on without further conversation. Ramsey (2003) said parents should really listen to their children without interrupting or finishing their sentences so that they can pay attention to all the words and the feelings behind them. Listening is an active process and is not just a pause until your turn to speak presents itself.

    Staying positive and acknowledging all attempts to engage social skills are critical. Verbal recognition is valued by children, especially when praising efforts that are not easy for them. Foster strengths and create opportunities for social skill utilization.

    Labels such as shy may seem harmless, but culturally they may be perceived as negative. Markway & Markway (2005), recommend saying, “You’re talkative with people you know well," instead of saying, “You’re shy." This defines reality and acknowledges the established skill of talking well with those the child is comfortable with. This could normalize anxious feelings for the child since many people aren’t as comfortable in the presence of strangers or new acquaintances. These minor adjustments will take time to implement and patience for anticipated change is necessary.

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    What It Means To Be Shy

    Children who are shy often lack developed social skills which obstruct their ability to begin and maintain relationships. These group of behaviors needed to relate to others in an effective manner include listening, starting and maintaining a conversation, asking questions or asking for help, giving and receiving compliments, introducing yourself or other people, and joining in with others (Markway & Markway, 2005).

    The best way for parents to help their children is to recognize their social or personality strengths as well as their weaknesses. Once weaknesses are identified, parents can practice lacking social skills and discuss real life interactions in which they can be used. A shy child may have unrealistic beliefs, inaccurate expectations or maladaptive thoughts in regards to social interactions and environments. When parents explore possible outcomes realistically they may alleviate fear that restricts the shy child from implementing their developing social skills. Reminding children of their strengths at this point may add some confidence to their future social interaction attempts.

    Social skills for shy children include nonverbal communication including body language and eye contact. A shy child may have to take baby steps and slowly practice making eye contact with people if they often avoid meeting others gaze due to feelings of discomfort. Markway & Markway (2005) recommend giving your child plenty of practice socializing, by breaking social events into small manageable pieces, reminding your child of past success, not doing too much for your child, helping your child focus on the right thing and teaching your child persistence.

    Practice Makes Perfect

    Giving children opportunities for practice allows them to face their fear and should follow the basics of exposure therapy which is gradual, repeated, and prolonged. That is why breaking social events into smaller pieces is crucial, so that it is gradual and repetition will be possible without being overwhelming and counterproductive. Not doing too much for your child means to allow your child to speak for themselves so that they can practice their developing social skills. Letting a child order their meal at a restaurant is an example of an opportunity for practice that is both brief and rewarding when the desired food arrives. Helping your child to focus on the right thing is reminding them of the tasks at hand instead of allowing their anxiety to take over their thoughts. Familiarity reduces anxiety so discussing anticipated actions or happenings may provide comfort and increase self-esteem. These approaches help to promote assertiveness in children who may otherwise be very reserved.

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    Set Goals

    In order to set goals that will promote positive change for your shy child, you must think about what interactions you would like to change. If your child struggles with school due to shyness, your goal may be that your child will be more comfortable at school, but what would this look like? This is when objectives become necessary so that you will be able to determine whether the child is achieving their goals or not. A goal of increased comfort at school may be accompanied by objectives such as, “My child will eat at least 50% of her food at lunch, My child will make eye contact with teacher and speak to him/her, My child will complain of fewer stomachaches in the morning (Markway & Markway, 2005)."

    Goals must be realistic and achievable, which means that they must be measurable. Objectives can be documented to show progress, regression, or stagnation in the movement towards goal obtainment. Perfection is not desired, but effort and progress are. Many of Ramsey’s (2003) suggestions apply in this process, “Encourage your child to try again, recognize your child’s good intentions even though the follow-through doesn’t always happen, notice when your child does something better and praise effort- not just success."

    Shy children often do not believe in themselves and will not until they gain another perspective of themselves. When you observe and listen to children you will pick up clues on how they view themselves, which shapes how they engage in the world (Ramsey, 2003). Parents must not only see, but also express, the best in their children in order for it to benefit their children. Although Ramsey (2003) was not specifically referring to shy children, he said not to be afraid to give your daughter karate lessons because the martial arts teach poise, grace, and self-confidence, as well as self-defense. This advice extends to the shy child for several reasons. If a shy child seems to have talents that would benefit the use of their body in martial arts, they may uncover hidden inner resources and increase their self-esteem. A shy child may also benefit from use of body instead of words to represent themselves in physically strong manner. Finding and encouraging any passions of shy children will empower them to develop into their best selves.

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    Helpful Websites:

    Shyness is Nice, www.painfullyshy.com

    Shy and Free, www.shyandfree.com

    Shykids Home Page, www.shykids.com

References

  • Hartley-Brewer, E. (2004). Raising a Self-Starter. Cambridge: Da Capo Press.

    Markway, B.G. & Markway, G.P. (2005). Nurturing the Shy Child: Practical Help for Raising Confident and Socially Skilled Kids and Teens. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

    Ramsey, R. D. (2003). 501 Ways to Boost Your Child’s Self-Esteem. Chicago: Contemporary Books.