We are proud to have Dr. Linda Mintle in ParentLife each month answering questions submitted from readers. To submit a question for Dr. Mintle, e-mail it to email@example.com and include "? for Dr. Mintle" on the subject line. This month we have an extra Q&A from Dr. Mintle we wanted to share.
Q: I have a shy child and want to help her make friends. She tends to cling to my side and not talk to anyone when we meet a new family. Even after several play dates, she is reluctant to leave me and go off with the other children. I see her playmates trying to engage her, but she is very hesitant. Are there things I can do as a parent to help her with shyness?
A: Shyness in children is not uncommon, so don’t panic. Many children are born with a shy temperament and need a little coaxing to engage in new situations or with new friends. Contact with new people is a bit terrifying but in most cases can be overcome. Occasionally we see children who are so anxious that they need treatment from a mental-health provider to work on anxiety. However, given time to adjust to new situations, most children do fine.
There are two areas of your child’s life I would like you to consider. Has she been rejected by other children (teased, singled out, excluded from peers, etc.) or neglected by other kids (ignored, left out of activities, not picked on a team, etc.)? Being rejected or neglected by peers can reinforce shyness and cause a child to withdraw.
As a parent, you can help coach your child to deal with relationship exchanges by teaching her how to forgive others; manage her feelings of hurt, anger, or rejection; defend herself from teasing; make requests to play; and find friends who will be kind.
A key part of this coaching is focusing on how your child thinks about herself. Shy children tend to over-focus on their own feelings and fears and judge themselves too harshly. They have thoughts like, No one will like me or They think I am stupid. And when someone does show interest, shy kids tend to think it had nothing to do with them. The fear of being rejected or embarrassed takes over.
So talk about positive things when meeting someone new or engaging in a group. Ask your child what she might like about engaging in an activity with other children. In new situations, it helps to have one familiar face in a group, so try to find that one friend or person your daughter knows to help ease the adjustment. Shy children want to be social. Finally, as much as we want to rescue our children from discomfort, resist paving the way. Instead, prompt her to make a move and encourage independence. Each success will build and bring confidence.
If your child seems shy and this resonates with you, you may want to check out Nurturing the Shy Child by Drs. Barbara and Gary Markway.
Do you have a shy child? How do you cope and teach?