Parenting a shy child can be frustrating, baffling, and worrying for a parent. If you are shy yourself you will be acutely aware of how your child feels in a world full of seemingly confident people. If on the other hand you are not shy yourself, you will be baffled and often frustrated by your child's behaviour.
How to help your child overcome shyness
Beware of labelling your child — while your child may be shy, beware of always referring to him or her as the ‘shy one’. Children tend to fit the labels their parents put on them so labelling a child as shy may limit his expression of himself.
It is important that your child has easy, relaxed, access to you. Be sure that your lifestyle allows you and your child to spend plenty of relaxed time together. If your child needs to talk about difficult experiences or emotions he will only do so in the context of a relaxed non-rushed atmosphere.
The first step towards helping your shy child is to build on the strength of your relationship. Later when you do 'shyness work' with your child, this needs to be done in the context of a loving and trusting relationship in which your child feels he can talk to you about anything.
The next step is to actually work with your child on his shyness. There are a number of regular things you could build into your routines.
Daily conversations: The focus with the shy child is to get an idea of how his day went. Be careful not to make it seem like an interrogation. The important point here is to be aware of what is happening in your child's life. Ask open-ended questions — questions that require more than a yes no answer, seek your child's opinion, etc.
Identify shy scenarios: As your child opens up and describes difficult or scary situations, don't overreact by either saying how awful it was or how it wasn't really scary — just accept your child's description in a calm and open manner. Through conversations like these you will be able to identify your child's shy scenarios — those situations that he finds most difficult. This then will give you something concrete to work on.
Scripting: It is best to tackle one scenario at a time and always remember to go at your child's pace. The next step is to 'script' the shy scenario. Go through it scene by scene and get details from your child on each scene. Remember this may be difficult for your child so be sensitive and encouraging, and most of all patient. As you are developing the script you will notice how observant your child is — comment positively on this to encourage him to continue. You may also be tempted to comment on how he was wrong in his interpretation of the events or point out how he could have reacted differently — refrain from doing this as you could discourage your child.
Alternative scripts: Using the script you have developed, get your child to brainstorm other interpretations or alternative reactions on his part. Keep it fun and relaxed and remember children love to pretend. For example, you could play ‘what if’ or ‘let’s pretend that…’ games. Your child describes how another boy came up to him in the playground and teased him — how about you saying: “What if you turned into Batman and jumped right over the boy’s head and all the other kids laughed and clapped?” and go from there. Accept all your child's alternatives with praise and you will be able to identify small changes your child could make in the script.
Role play: Now you role play the new script identifying those changes that might or might not work. Let your child take a number of roles — himself, one of the other children, teacher, etc.
You can plan to work with your child on one shy scenario for at least a week before encouraging him to try your revised script out in real life. Don't be discouraged if it doesn't go to plan and always be ready to praise any small changes your child makes.
As you begin to include this type of conversation and work in your daily routine, your child will feel supported and less threatened by his anxieties. Take it slowly as to start with your child may not like talking about sad or scary emotions. Also make sure that you have done your groundwork in developing that relaxed and trusting relationship that really forms the basis of the shy work you are undertaking. Finally don't despair if your child doesn't want to do it, as this may just be a sign that you need to go more slowly.
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