Parenting advice to help your shyer, more sensitive kids feel more comfortable in social settings and join in the fun of life
QUESTION: “We have an eleven-year-old son who is extremely shy. Whenever we introduce him to new people, he barely acknowledges their existence and looks so uncomfortable. If another kid tries to have a simple conversation with him, he becomes almost mute. What can we do to help him feel more confident with people—especially those his own age? ” – Marsha, a mother of three from Baton Rouge
ANSWER: “You go ahead without me.” “I’m afraid to raise my hand.” “I’d rather be by myself.” Kids who hang back and are shy are kids handicapped from experiencing life to its fullest. Shy kids curtail their experiences, don’t take the necessary social risks, and as a result don’t gain confidence in social situations. Not being able to join a group and make new friends will haunt them the rest of their lives. Finally, the pain of social rejection will set in. The good news is that we can help kids feel more comfortable in groups by enhancing and practicing the skills of social competence.
Five Tips to Help Shyer Kids Feel More Comfortable in Social Settings
Use the following five tips to help your kid gain confidence in social settings:
1. Encourage eye contact. As you’re talking with your child say, “ Look at me.” or “Put your eyes on my eyes.” or “I want to see your eyes.” By consciously reinforcing the skill and modeling it regularly, your child will soon be using eye contact. Tip: If your kid is uncomfortable about using eye contact, tell her to look at the bridge of the speaker’s nose. With a few practices, she usually no longer needs the technique, and will look more confidently into the speaker’s eyes.
2. Teach conversational openers and closers. Make a list with your kid of easy conversation openers he can use with different groups of people such as: what he could say to someone he already knows, an adult he hasn’t met, a friend he hasn’t seen in a while, a brand-new student at a school, or a child he’d like to play with on the playground. Then take turns rehearsing them together, until your child feels comfortable trying them on his own. Hint: Practicing conversation skills on the telephone with a supportive listener on the other end is always less threatening for shyer kids than doing so face-to-face.
3. Rehearse social situations. Prepare your kid for an upcoming social event by describing the setting, expectations, and the attendees. Then help him practice how to meet others, table manners, basic conversational skills, and even how to say good-bye gracefully.
4. Practice skills with younger peers. Philip Zimbardo, renowned shyness expert, recommends pairing older shy kids with younger children for brief play periods. So create opportunities for your kid to play with one other child who is younger: a younger sibling, cousin, neighbor, or one of your friend’s younger kids. For teens, try baby-sitting: it’s a great way for a shy kid to earn money as well as practice social skills–starting a conversation, using eye contact–that she was reticent about trying with kids her age.
5. Arrange One-On-One Play Opportunities. Dr. Fred Frankel, a psychologist and developer of the world famous UCLA Social Skills Training Program, suggests “one-on-one play dates” as the best way for kids to build social confidence. This is a time when your kid invites only one child over for a couple of private play hours to get to know one another and practice friendship-making skills. Provide snacks and then try to keep interruptions to a minimum: siblings should not be included and television viewing should not be a play option.
For more tips on helping shyer children, including solutions that teach friendship making skills, refer to The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries.
You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news and research about child development.