Shyness is often seen as an undesirable trait in our society, especially in children. I was a shy child, in fact I’m a shy adult. I spent hours as a child waiting on the sidelines, looking in at others socialising with ease, wondering what it would be like to be them. As an adult I still struggle in social situations, but now I realise that my shyness is not a flaw. I’m an introvert and proud!
So, what can you do if you have a shy child, or suspect that you are raising an introvert – to help them to embrace, not feel embarrassed about, who they are? Here are my top ten tips:
1. Don’t view shyness as a personality flaw. Most shy children are simply introverts and introversion is not a problem that needs to be fixed. Instead, it is much easier – and far more healthy for the child – to accept their personality and see the positives (introverts often possess heightened empathy and intuition, great imagination and an analytical mind. Introverts also tend to make great listeners and often have a great deal of focus as they grow).
2. Understand attachment theory. In order to feel safe to explore the world and everybody in it, children first need a strong attachment to primary caregivers who act as their secure base. A place that they can return to when the world gets too much, somebody to make them feel safe and supported, to diffuse anxiety and to give them the boost that they need to go out and explore once again. A shy child who ‘clings’ to their parents is doing exactly what they need to do to recharge and build the security that they need to branch out into the world.
3. Acknowledge that you cannot force the shyness out by pushing the child to do things that they don’t want to do. Forcing (however well meant) a shy child to go and speak to others, join in with play, order their own food, or pay in a shop, will not make them less shy. Flooding them with exposure will instead likely make things worse, increasing any social anxiety. Give the child opportunities to branch out on their own if they feel confident enough to do so, but be there to support them (and never pressure) if things don’t feel right.
4. Focus praise on effort, not outcome, especially in social situations. Instead of clapping and cheering when they do manage to speak to somebody, or put themselves in the spotlight, focus instead on the tiny moments where they were brave, regardless of whether they ‘succeeded’ or not. The time they put their hand up when somebody asked a question, but put it down again before they were chosen to answer is just as valuable – if not more so – than the time they stood up and spoke in front of a room full of people.
5. Make sure that they know that you love them unconditionally and that you’re proud of them, no matter how they socialise with others. Shy children can struggle with their self-esteem, so need to know that you think they are wonderful as often as possible. Explain the difference between introverts and extroverts to them and help them to understand that there are all types of personalities in the world and that none of them are wrong or undesirable.
6. Stand up for them and speak out if others tease or berate them for their shyness. The next time a stranger says “what’s the matter with you? Are you shy?” – say “s/he just doesn’t feel like speaking right now, we all have days like that” and move on. Those small moments when your child feels understood and protected by you will make a huge difference in the future.
7. Be mindful of social situations and how your child will cope in them, but don’t hold them back because of your own anxieties and fears. If your child indicates that they would like to go to a group, or an event, then embrace their wish, regardless of any concerns you may have about how they will cope socially. They could very well prove you wrong!
8. Help your child with some stress and anxiety management techniques, so that they have something to help them to cope if/when they find themselves in unavoidable anxiety inducing situations. A simple breathing technique, visualisation, or fiddle toy (even just a hair band on their wrist to twiddle) can really help.
9. Build some quiet time into your child’s schedule. Introverts need time away from others to offload and recharge. Don’t be tempted to fill up all of the weekend, or summer holidays with busy activities and play dates, allow some days to have free time at home, with plenty of opportunities for art, music, reading and writing and all important solitude.
10. Don’t swoop in and rescue them immediately. It can be tempting to hover and helicopter parent a shy, or introverted, child, but while you should absolutely be there, ready and waiting, to help and support on the sidelines, you should allow your child time to experience and resolve things on their own before swooping in to fix things for them – they may just surprise you!
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