I remember back when my middle daughter, Ashlee, was about two years old. She was one of the most outgoing and social children I had ever met. During every shopping trip or public outing, she would always make it a point to say “hi” to every single person she saw. She would even serenade her new friends, once singing Christmas carols very loudly for everyone during a shopping trip at Target. Fortunately for me, most of the shoppers found her holiday spirit endearing. Unfortunately, her older sister Kaitlyn was not one of those people. Kaitlyn was five years old at the time and was painfully shy. She made it a practice to cling to me in pretty much every social situation. Kaitlyn had friends but it was very difficult for her to interact with people she did not know and so developing those types of relationships took longer for her than most.
Like most children, Kaitlyn eventually outgrew her shyness as she developed more confidence in herself. For most of us, shyness simply means that we feel awkward or anxious in social situations. However, once we learn how to behave appropriately those situations we eventually grow into young adults who feel able to successfully handle mostly any situation we encounter. We gain confidence through our experience and learn to manage new situations accordingly.
However, for some, it is much more complicated than that as some people are naturally inclined to be reluctant when making new friends or meeting new people. Shy people can be some of the nicest and most generous people you will meet but they are often misunderstood as rude or cold. They tend to be attentive listeners and wonderful friends. It is important to remember that shyness is a personality trait and is not necessarily a trait that can be outgrown. However, by using a few of these simple strategies, you can help your child successfully navigate this part of their personality.
Avoid Shaming – It can be hard to be patient but resist the urge to show your frustration around your child. While making new friends may come as second nature to you, that won’t be the case for everyone. Try not to make them feel guilty for choosing not to participate in a group activity or not wanting to play with a new friend. While your goal is to encourage them to be more outgoing and willing to make new friends, this tactic can actually do the opposite by undermining their confidence. Try encouraging words and, if at all possible, don’t force your child into a situation in which they are uncomfortable.
Set An Example – You are your child’s first (and best) teacher! Children tend to imitate the behavior of influential adults around them – usually their parents or grandparents. Set a good example and teach them how to appropriately react in social situations. Make sure your child sees you socializing with other people in a positive way.
Be Social – Whenever you are learning a new skill or habit, repetition is key. Plan regular one on one play dates or events with children that have similar interests as your child. Approaching a group can be scary for even the most well-spoken adult so one on one situations are usually best for helping your child feel comfortable. The object is to make sure that your child is reinforcing the examples that you have set for them. And just as a child learns from adults they also learn from other children as well. Which is why socialization is very important from a young age. Children learn just as much from their peers as from their parents.
Make it A Game – Everything is more fun when you are playing! And your child is much more likely to remember what they are learning if they are engaged in the lesson. Use role-playing games with your child to get them interested in learning how to properly socialize. This works for well for both younger and older children. Be creative and make it into a fun little video or create a game where they win prizes for certain behaviors or reaching certain milestones.
Be Patient – As with just about anything related to parenting, be patient. While children are exceptionally fast learners, some lessons are easier to learn than others. Trying to force your child to interact with their peers will only cause more anxiety and may even cause them to withdraw more. Offer encouragement and love to help get rid of any fears when it comes to socializing.
Don’t Fix It – You know the saying, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. Again, shyness is a part of someone’s personality, it’s not a fault to be corrected. Resist the urge to want to “fix it”. Don’t assume that it is something that can be fixed. Some people, including children, are naturally introverted and prefer inward reflection versus outward communication.
Don’t Ignore Red Flags – It is absolutely normal for a child to cling on to mom for the first few minutes of a playdate or sometimes even for the entire playdate. However, be sure to keep an eye out for behavior that you would consider extreme. Exhibiting characteristics such as isolation or showing symptoms of physical or mental panic in social situations (i.e. hyperventilating, threatening to hurt themselves, etc.), can be a sign of a serious problem and professional help should be sought.
The good news is that it’s absolutely not unheard of for a child who is shy in their younger years, to grow to be an outgoing and very social person. With some patience, love, and encouragement, your little wall flower will begin to blossom.