People find it really funny when I tell them that as a child I used to be shy.
Because I am confident and chatty and have a go at most things from walking over burning hot coals, to skydiving, driving a Formula 3 racing car or love appearing on the telly. People presume I was always like that.
I think having confidence and the ability to speak up and “have a go” can be taught. And I think it can be taught from you first and foremost, from your child’s school, from their friends, from your family and from Life so being shy is not something that has to be suffered, endured or just tolerated.
I think , shyness robs people of opportunities in life. And while many children outgrow shyness with time, for those who carry their shyness forward into adulthood, life can become one series of missed opportunities after another.
So anything you can do to ease your child’s shyness will, in turn, reduce the number of opportunities your child misses over the course of their life. And that could be a wonderful gift to give them.
So then, what can you as a parent do?
Teach social skills early.
When it comes to social skills, the earlier you begin teaching your child the better.
Shyness among children is believed to increase with age-from roughly 20% of children in primary school to 50% of children by the time they reach their teens.
So why not give your child a head start by teaching them the kinds of social skills that can make their life more fulfilling, exciting and fun?
Children learn by watching the people around them. So that means you!
So role model confident social behaviour yourself first.
Just imagine you have a camcorder on your shoulder for the week and notice how you behave in new situations, meeting new people, being in groups etc and notice how you react and feel, because your child may be learning their behaviour from you !Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t like what you discover – just relax but work on yourself first and over time, your ability to approach others and put them at ease can help to put your child at ease, too.
Positive Things To Do . . .
• Go first in social situations. take the lead and be the first person to say “Hello” or to introduce yourself or to strike up conversations.
• Make a list of the kinds of things you would like your child to feel comfortable doing (e.g., talking with other children, asking for help from teachers or class room assistants, making phone calls, etc) and make a point of doing these things in front of your child.
• Be friendly. Routinely smile, say “hello” and greet the people you see as you go through your day confidently as this really helps your child learn positive ways to interact with others naturally.
• Compliment others often. Notice what you like about people (friends, family and strangers). Tell a stranger or casual friend that you like their scarf or tell a friend how wonderful their meal was.
• Make an effort to help other people without being asked. Open doors for people, pick things up when people drop them or offer to carry things for friends.
• Role model taking risks and learning from them. Help your children learn by making positive comments about how you felt while you did things. Things like: “I thought that would be much, much harder than it was.” “That wasn’t much fun, but I’m glad I did it and got it out of the way. At least now I don’t have to worry about it.” Or, “That didn’t go as well as I thought it would, but at least I know what to do next time.”
• Take up a new hobby, learn a new skill or join a fun club that appeals to you and let your children know what you’re learning, how you feel and how you are improving – it all teaches them that learning new things and meeting new people is a positive experience.
Bring back the things you learn from your new class and share them with your family and friends. Show your children that learning new skills from a class is a good thing.
• Teach your child how to look someone in the eye, shake their hand firmly or smile at a stranger. It builds confidence over time.
Start with family and friends and build up slowly from there, encouraging, praising what they get right, not focusing on what goes wrong.
Build confidence one small step at a time.
Things to do to encourage your shy child.
• Take advantage of opportunities to practice being assertive in front of your children by politely asking how much longer it will be before you’re seated at restaurants or asking sales people how this or that appliance works, or asking where to go at customer service.
• Arrange play dates for your children when they are young and seek out safe places for your children to interact with others and practice social skills as they get older (e.g. doing volunteer work, hearing younger children read, joining in and helping to run football,rugby or dance etc clubs with adult leaders).
• Help your children understand what it takes to make and keep a good friend. Talk about your friends, read books about friendships and get chatting around the whole subject.
• Practice social skills at home. Make a game of practising social skills outside your home. Give family members points or stickers for saying “hello” to people, shaking hands, giving eye contact or smiling when they meet people or for taking turns asking shop assistants for help. Make a list of target behaviours you want to practice before you leave home and make it FUN and relaxed!
Things NOT To Do . . .
• Cross the street to avoid people you are too nervous to see.
• Embarrass your child in public.
• Criticise people in public.
• Beat yourself up for having failed when you try things and they don’t turn out the way you would like.
• Berate, criticise or judge your children when they make a mistake.
• Mistake your child’s anxiety for a sign weakness, aloofness, lack of motivation or anything to do with their intellectual ability.
Shy children tend to worry a lot as they are afraid things won’t turn out the way they want them to and they feel enormous disappointment and failure if they don’t.
So it’s really important to teach shy children that failure is a natural part of learning.
Teach them that all successful people make LOADS of mistakes and get back up when they get things wrong, make mistakes or muck up. The important thing to always get your shy children pondering is:
“WHAT DID I LEARN FROM THIS?”
One of the most important things you can teach your children is that failure provides the feedback we all need to become good at the things we choose to do.
The ability to see problems as challenges and failures as feedback strengthens their confidence by reminding them that just because they didn’t succeed at first, doesn’t mean they won’t succeed in the end.
Teach your children to think creatively and to develop tenacity.
Talk to them about when they couldn’t tie their shoelaces, walk, ride a bike or swim …. but how they can now, as they kept on trying and learnt to master all these things over time. It reminds them that success takes time, tenacity and practise.
Teach them how to brainstorm ideas and solutions and how to generate more than one solution for their problems.
Help them come to see themselves as scientists or detectives whose job is to test their solutions until they find the best one.
Prepare them for disappointment, but teach them to persevere until they find an answer that works.
Thomas Edison was said to have done 10,000 experiments before he found THE one that worked to make a light bulb.
Build creative problem-solving into your child’s life and get in the habit of generating multiple solutions to each problem.
Reward your children for trying as much you reward them for succeeding.
Help your child see that life is process of steps (and risks) that over time lead to success.
Help your child identify talents and hobbies that make them feel special. The more things they do, the more interesting they become to themselves and other people-and your child’s self-esteem grows as they have more things to talk about.
Encourage your children to develop passions early in life.
Even if they don’t like the first few things they try, the journey will make them richer for the experience. And don’t worry if they find a passion you don’t like (assuming it’s not dangerous, life threatening or too obnoxious to live with), most children will grow out things with time.
Just know that the more things your children do in life, the more things they will have to share with other people and the easier it will be for them to connect.
For a shy child, the ability to connect with another child is one of the greatest gifts they can receive.
• Identify activities that take advantage of your child’s strengths. Is your child sporty? Artistic? Neat and organised? Good at maths, art, music? Loves to read? Good at building things? What holds their attention? What is least likely to discourage them? And find activities that take advantage of those strengths.
• If your child is very shy and unwilling to attend group activities, start with solitary activities at first-like music lessons, arts and crafts projects out of books, practicing football in the garden. Then, as your child gains more confidence, arrange opportunities for them to get guidance from other adults and gradually-with time-to share their interest with children their own age by joining a club or joining a band.
• Encourage your child to share their expertise with others by performing, teaching, showing their work or simply describing what they’re doing to others. Many children benefit from teaching their skill to children who are younger than them perhaps at school or amongst their brothers and sisters.
• Help your child learn to manage their emotions.
Harvard researcher, Jerome Kagan, identified some infants exhibiting shy and timid temperaments at birth and followed them over time.
What he found was absolutely fascinating. Six months later, some of the infants appeared to have outgrown their apprehension.
Kagan observed that parents of infants that outgrew their timidity were more likely to help their children learn to cope with small upsets, while parents of infants who remained timid were more likely to comfort their children through their upsets.
Of course you want to comfort your children but if you over react or over compensate for life’s little upsets your kids learn to fear the world – so like everything it’s all about BALANCE !
Teach tolerance and respect for others.
Shy people are notoriously judgmental-both of themselves and others.
So just notice how you speak about others.The more judgmental you are as a parent, the more opportunity your children will have to learn to internalise those judgments.
When shy children overhear you criticising other people’s hair, outfit, jewellery or personality, they assume that’s what everyone does-i.e., criticise others. They learn that going out in public means you will be continuously judged. What’s more, by judging other people harshly, your child may come to believe that your are judging them harshly as well. In time, their world can become an unsafe place..
Teach tolerance and respect for others, despite their shortcomings, as this teaches your kids that people don’t have to be perfect to be worthwhile.
Identifying the nature of your child’s shyness.
Children are shy in different ways in different situations and for different reasons so if you understand the nature of your child’s shyness it will help you develop a plan of action designed towards your child’s specific needs.
So grab a piece of paper and a pen and ponder these questions to help you gain some clarity:
• Is your child shy in groups?
• At parties?
• Meeting new people?
• In new situations?
• Only with adults?
• Or, pretty much everywhere?
• Does your child have trouble eating in public?
• Playing with other children?
• Making phone calls?
• Or, is your child only shy when s/he has to make a presentation in front of the class at school?
Knowing the nature of you child’s shyness will help you identify the specific skills your child needs to be more at ease in social situations.
Sometimes, though, children struggle with more than shyness.
There are a number of conditions that masquerade as, or can lead to, shyness and many of which require professional attention, for example some children struggle with non-verbal learning disabilities or Asperger’s Syndrome which can interfere with their ability to read social cues or understand how to play or answer questions at an appropriate level. Other children struggle with extreme anxiety, or have difficulty establishing emotional bonds with other people.
Most of these conditions benefit from a supportive structured environment where you, alongside your child’s school, can consciously help and teach your child to develop their social skills and develop strategies to overcome their shyness. If you need support and maybe in doubt about how to move this forward seek professional help from your child’s school, your doctor or Health visitor.
Many children outgrow their shyness, many others carry it forward with them into adulthood as part of their personality.
So just be patient, encourage your kids to be positive and praise them specifically for all the lovely things they get right or achieve and over time their confidence will grow and their shyness fade away.
Check out the shykids.com http://www.shykids.com/shykidsfriends.htm website. It’s full of great tips to help your child learn to be social and things you might want to practice with your children at home.
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About the author
Sue Atkins is a Parenting Expert who offers practical guidance for bringing up happy, confident, well behaved children. She is also the author of “Raising Happy Children for Dummies” one in the famous black and yellow series published worldwide and the highly acclaimed Parenting Made Easy CDs. She regularly appears on BBC Breakfast and The Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2 and her parenting articles are published all over the world.
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Sue Atkins the Parenting Expert
T: + 44 1883 818329 M: 07740 622769