Playdates, birthday parties, school plays. For shy kids, activities that require interaction with strangers are torturous — if not impossible. And research shows that most shy children won’t outgrow their social anxiety.
Some kids are wired to be shy, according to Samuel Putnam, a professor of psychology at Bowdoin College who has studied shyness in children. As infants, they’re troubled by new sensations, such as sharp odors and tastes. As toddlers, new social situations are upsetting.
“It’s an innate tendency,” says Putnam. “Kids can’t help it.”
But parents can help their kids overcome social anxiety and shyness by taking the following steps, says Putnam.
Tip No. 6 to Overcome Shyness in Children: Know if they’re truly shy. There’s a difference between being introverted and being shy, says Putnam: “Some kids would rather play alone, and that’s OK. The world needs quiet people.” On the other hand, shy kids want to interact, but they get upset by it. While both types of children benefit from social interaction, shy ones need more than simple encouragement and opportunity.
Tip No. 5 to Overcome Shyness in Children: Be direct and firm. It may seem counterintuitive, but Putman’s research shows that shy kids benefit from firm, direct commands rather than gentle, subtle directions. “If they touch an outlet, don’t steer them away; say ‘No, don’t do that,’” suggests Putnam. While they may be upset in the moment, having their sensitivity aroused by a parent helps shy kids regulate their emotions. “Think of it as batting practice. They’re building tolerance in a safe environment. Being protective is almost the worst thing you can do.”
Tip No. 4 to Overcome Shyness in Children: Seek out social situations. It’s hard (and maybe embarrassing) to see your child standing apart from the group or losing it in front of other kids, but avoiding social situations robs them of the chance to build coping skills. “Take them to Chuck E. Cheese and to the playground so they’re dealing with larger groups,” says Putnam. There’s an advantage to sticking it out; maybe next time will be better.
Tip No. 3 to Overcome Shyness in Children: Come up with a game plan. Before your child enters a situation that involves interaction — a birthday party or class field trip — talk about what the experience might be like and brainstorm some coping strategies. Putnam suggests asking, “If you get a little scared or upset, what are some things you can do?”
Tip No. 2 to Overcome Shyness in Children: Avoid harsh discipline. “Yelling or doing anything that is power-assertive isn’t a good technique for any kid — especially for shy kids,” says Putnam. “If you yell or berate, they get so overwhelmed and freaked out that they miss the point of your discipline.” Shy kids tend to be more gentle and empathetic than other kids, so gentle discipline usually does the trick. “If they are mean to their little sister, point out how sad she looks and how their actions effect other kids. Reasoning is going to be more effective with shy kids.”
Tip No. 1 to Overcome Shyness in Children: Accept who they are. Dealing with shy kids can be particularly frustrating for parents who are outgoing. But it’s important to realize that your kids may not like what you like or operate the way you do. If you find yourself being critical, remember that shyness is an innate trait — and a genetic one too, according to Putnam. “Look at the characteristics of your spouse and remind yourself, ‘I love this person, and he has that trait.’”
Tolerance is key to helping kids overcome shyness. It’s important to understand that having social anxiety doesn’t mean they’ll have an unhappy future. Says Putnam: “Kids who are shy have a bunch of directions they could go in. They’re probably not going to be a Broadway star, but they will be happy and healthy.”