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Health Tips for Parents

2007 Issues

How can I help my child overcome shyness?

Feeling shy is a normal part of early development; many children feel timid in social situations from time to time. When shyness starts to interfere with social interactions and overall emotional well being, however, parents can take steps to help their child cope with these feelings.

According to Rachelle Tyler, MD, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA, what causes shyness is not known. “Many children may be biologically wired to be shy,” she observes, noting that children who were not exposed to a variety of social situations early in life may be timid around new people. Additionally, children who have been criticized or bullied — or who harbor a lack of self-esteem — may become withdrawn.

Helping children cope
Regardless of why a child is shy, he or she can learn ways to cope with this personality trait to help them function more comfortably at school and in social settings. Notes Dr. Tyler, “Many shy children and adults have developed their own coping strategies to help them do what they need to do in social situations.” For instance, parents can help prepare their child by discussing conversation topics for the people he or she may meet.

Parents can help children explore the reasons why they feel shy. By asking, “What worries you about this situation?” and other leading questions, parents may gain understanding about their child’s shyness. It is possible that through an open, nonjudgmental talk, a child may reveal that he or she is being teased or bullied at school, or that they have a deep-rooted low opinion of themselves. Always show empathy to your child, and never criticize him or her when shyness strikes. And, don’t describe your child as “shy” in front of others.

Parents can also model outgoing, confident behavior. “Mothers and fathers can lead by example by exhibiting strong social skills,” Dr. Tyler explains. Simple everyday gestures — such as saying “hello” to someone in public, opening a door for a stranger, or giving someone a compliment — can make a positive impression on a child. If you, the parent, also suffer from shyness, discuss with your child how challenging these simple gestures are for you — your child will appreciate your honesty.

For shy children who suffer from low self-esteem, parents can provide opportunities for these children to gain control and confidence in their abilities. Some ways to do this include:
• Assign chores that are challenging, but within the child’s capabilities to accomplish.
• Give children choices —including what to wear or what to eat — and gradually allow them to make more and more decisions themselves.
• Engage in role-playing activities. Talking through a situation may help children identify areas of concern and problem-solve some issues beforehand.

When shyness is a problem
Watch for warning signs of severely shy children. These children tend to have fewer friends, less social interactions and, as a result, may lack effective communication skills. They may feel lonely and anxious. In school, shy children are often hesitant to ask for help and may fall behind academically.

If a child’s shyness is so severe that he or she will no longer engage in normal activities, Dr. Tyler recommends seeking the guidance of a licensed counselor who can set small personal goals that, when achieved one at a time, can help overcome the overwhelming feelings of shyness.

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