What we commonly call “shyness” is not a behavior problem. It’s a temperament trait. Temperament research focuses on nine personality characteristics that have been found to remain constant throughout a person’s life. Children who are slow to warm up to new situations may be very active and very verbal in familiar surroundings, but feel more trepidation in new situations and around new people.
Recognizing that these behaviors are a reflection of your child’s personality can help shape your responses. We want to support children in managing their emotions, and demonstrate confidence that they will be able to navigate social situations in a way that works for them.
Here are some tips for helping children develop the skills they need to manage their emotions and feel successful in social situations:
Try not to label.
Labeling your child as “shy” conveys a static state and may feel shaming. Instead, describe his personality, focusing on his ability to adapt. Pointing out past successes can help a child see that he is capable of handling tough situations. It also expresses confidence that, when he is ready, he will join the group. This acceptance and confidence is more effective than pushing a child to act before he is ready.
Teach effective communication.
Helping a child come up with the best words to use in a new situation can make them feel confident and prepared. Role playing can give them the experience of success before they even leave the house. Kids need to be taught skills like making eye contact, smiling and responding to chit chat. For example, rehearsing what to say at a birthday party (“Happy birthday! Thank you for inviting me!”) will give your child a tool to use when she may be feeling stressed. Modeling effective communication helps the most of all. Engaging your child in conversations and exposing them to discussions between other family members over dinner, in the car, or whenever you are together, helps them to learn the cadences of communication.
Kids who are more sensitive or introverted may require more alone time to recharge and center themselves. But it is still important to provide opportunities for social interaction as well. Aim for frequent, short, simple interactions. This will give your child opportunities to practice his social skills, building his confidence and adding to his bank of positive social experiences.
Every type of temperament has its strengths and challenges. Being slow-to-warm-up may seem like a challenge, but it is also an asset. These children may be more sensitive to the needs of others and better at negotiating group situations. They are often very careful observers who learn a lot from what they see, and who may be more able to think through situations before they act. They also tend to make fewer, closer friendships and be less likely to make impulsive decisions in adolescence. Recognizing our children’s strengths, and helping them to recognize them as well, will build up their confidence and also strengthen the parenting relationship.
By Sarah Murray Keith, LPC-S,
a Parent Educator at The Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital.