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Ask Elizabeth: Too Shy For Words

Children are very different from one another. Some thrive in environments filled with people. They talk to anyone they meet. They tell stories, and they may even sing their latest song for a delighted group of onlookers. Other children, though, are overwhelmed by a room full of new people, let alone one new person who asks, “What is your name?” This article will cover shyness in two different situations: around adults and around other children.

Question: My child is very shy around adults in social situations. She hides behind me and won’t even say hello.

THINK ABOUT IT: Even the most vivacious, talkative child can suddenly become timid when faced with social situations around adults. Most kids will overcome this with time and practice. Some, however, are naturally more tentative with strangers and will always be more reserved in social situations.

Solution #1: Allow your child to practice by involving him in unthreatening social situations, such as a small gathering of friends or family. Being comfortable in such settings comes easier with practice.

Solution #2: Don’t force your child to be more socially outgoing than is comfortable for him. Teach and encourage polite manners, but don’t force more than that. Accept the fact that your child may be more reserved, and understand that all people are different, and that these differences are healthy and appropriate.

Solution #3: Sometimes shyness is actually embarrassment. Children often don’t know what to say to adults, or if they do talk, they feel that they are saying the wrong things. It helps to rehearse appropriate responses and tell your child what kind of things to say, such as, “It’s polite to answer an adult who talks to you. When Mr. Zither commented on your haircut, you could have said, ‘I just had it cut yesterday.’”

Solution #4: Don’t rescue or overprotect your child by jumping in with an answer or excuse to fill a quiet moment. Instead, let him learn through experience, even when it makes him a bit uncomfortable. Encourage and support your child when he makes an attempt to be social. A smile, a pat or a gentle squeeze can let your child know you recognize the effort and think he’s doing a good job.

Solution #5: Don’t label your child as ‘shy.’ If anyone else makes this comment, correct him or her by saying your child is sometimes “quiet, thoughtful or cautious.”

Solution #6: Give your child a way out if he is really struggling. Teach him to quietly say to you, “P.H.” which means, “I’m having a hard time, Please Help.” Just knowing he can count on you when the going gets rough may give him the confidence to hold his own in a conversation.

Question: My child is very shy around other children and has trouble joining in the play. Why is he like this, and how can I help him be more comfortable with other children?

THINK ABOUT IT: The actions we perceive as shyness are a sign of various situations. Some kids need more time to warm up to a group or a new peer. Some kids don’t have enough practice in social situations to feel comfortable jumping right into the action. Some kids are tentative about new situations. And some are, yes, shy. Most of these situations can be overcome through practice and encouragement.

Solution #1: Invite one child to your home at a time for a playdate. After a certain amount of time, invite two friends over. In the comfort of her own home, your child will usually feel more comfortable and get to know the other children. She can then transfer that comfort to other social settings.

Solution #2: Play alongside your child until she feels comfortable and interacts with another child. Gradually move away from the group but stay close enough for your child to still see you.

Solution #3: Involve your child in a physical activity, such as swimming or gymnastics, or a sports team. After the initial adjustment, the experience will build your child’s confidence in group settings.

Solution #4: Allow a child to watch other children for a while before joining in. Some children need to scope out the situation and absorb what’s happening before they participate. Pushing a child to get involved before she’s ready will make her more uncomfortable.

Solution #5: Teach your child specific approaches to use when she meets new kids. Practice these at home in a role-play situation. Acknowledge her uncomfortable feelings, and encourage her to practice and try out her new skills. Let her know that while she may be concerned with her own appearance and her own side of the conversation, the other kid is likely to be feeling the same way. Once she has successfully used her new skills, she will be more likely to try them again.

Solution #6: Some children are comfortable and content in their quiet way of interacting with the world. They have one or two good friends, are doing well in school, and are happy and self-confident. Make sure you aren’t assuming a problem where one doesn’t really exist!

Spending time with a professional counselor or therapist can help a child who is painfully shy, and suffers from it. A school counselor may be a good source of help.

Elizabeth is the author of The No-Cry Solution series of parenting books. Her newest book is The No-Cry Picky Eater Solution: Gentle Ways to Encourage Your Child to Eat – and Eat Healthy. (Excerpted with permission by NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group Inc. from Perfect Parenting, The Dictionary of 1,000 Parenting Tips by Elizabeth Pantley, copyright 1999.) For more information, visit


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