Helping Shy Children Build Self Confidence
By Denise Yearian

  • Childhood shyness is a common concern among parents who fear their youngsters may be lacking or missing out on social situations. The truth is most reserved children do well in relationships once they hurdle unfamiliarity. To help your shy child build social self confidence, start with small group settings, broaden the base and provide plenty of preparation and practice.

  • This is what Karen Tronto did with her son. “As a toddler, Tristan was a quiet child who wouldn’t interact with anyone except his immediate family,” says the mother of her now 5-year-old. “By the time he was 3, I realized he wasn’t going to be a social butterfly, so I enrolled him in a small preschool to get him adjusted to an academic setting and ease him away from me.”

    Her plan worked and Tristan began shedding his shell. The following year Tronto transitioned him to a larger preschool program, one that had multiple classrooms of students who would go on to elementary school together. Today Tristan talks incessantly about stepping onto the bus and going to school.

  • “Parents who want to help their shy children gain confidence in social situations should start with small group interactions until they feel comfortable transitioning to larger ones,” says Tara Sutton, clinical faculty/instructor at the University of Delaware Laboratory Preschool in Newark Delaware. “As group size grows, adult/child ratio should be a consideration. This will encourage positive peer interactions and ward off negative behaviors such as bullying, exclusion and name calling.”

    Another way to build social confidence is to create slow, minimum-risk situations. At-home play dates are a good place to begin.

    “Bringing other kids into your home can empower your child to take more social risks and open up to his peers,” says Cheryl Carey, 24-year elementary school educator and guidance counselor. “Have one friend over. Then invite two. Work up to a slumber party. But before you do, encourage your child to spend time at his friends’ houses too.”

    Play dates were a godsend for the MacNeal family. Although their daughter Faith, then age 5, had participated in several academic and extracurricular pursuits, it was their regularly scheduled play dates that helped this only child overcome social awkwardness.

    “Once or twice a week we did play dates with her cousins; sometimes other friends joined in too,” says her mother Pam. “During that time, Faith became really close to her cousin Andy. They also went to Sunday school together which was ideal—their class was large but he was there. At first Faith primarily interacted with Andy, but eventually she felt comfortable enough to begin connecting with other children.”

    Today those children are among her best friends.

    Preparing timid children for social events is an added way to build confidence and alleviate anticipation and fear of the unknown.

    “Start by talking about what you’re planning to do before you go so your child is well informed about the situation,” says Sutton. “Do it in story form: ‘Tomorrow Zach is going to…’ and tell the whole story inserting your child’s name. Then get his input. What might he see? What might he do? This will make him feel more in control.”

    Advance preparation is even more important before random social gathering, such as birthday parties and family reunions.

    “A lot of Tristan’s friends had parties at the railroad station, but we didn’t make it on a single train ride,” says Tronto. “He would get so worked up because of the loud noises, unfamiliar setting and number of people that he’d go into a panic and say, ‘I don’t want to go.’ I tried to reason with him, but he was so upset that we’d just leave.”

    Sometimes panicky predicaments can be turned into pivotal impromptus, as MacNeal explains.

    “One day at preschool Faith was doing a project and she leaned forward to get something,” recalls the girl’s mother. “When she went to sit back down she missed her chair and fell on the floor, and all the kids laughed at her. She was devastated. She came home crying and told me she was never going to school again. I waited until she had calmed down then we role played the situation. I pretended to fall out of my chair and she laughed at me. Then I said, ‘See? They weren’t laughing at you but at the situation.’ This helped her reframe what had happened.”

    “There are different ways to role play with children,” says Carey. “You can act things out or use their dolls or actions figures. Talk about how they are feeling and pretend to interact with other kids. This is great practice and prepares them to handle future situations.”

    Most importantly, listen to your child and validate his feelings. Ask open-ended questions and encourage dialogue. Don’t assume you know how he feels. He may be upset about a situation because it’s loud or there are too many people or he’s scared. But you’ll never know unless you listen. Above all, celebrate your child for who he is and remind him that with time, preparation and practice he can successfully navigate any social situation.

  • -Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children.

  • Quick tips to help a shy child:
  • » Expose your child to a variety of non-threatening, positive peer interactions from an early age to begin building social self confidence.

    » Consider an environment that will provide opportunities for social growth. Start with a small class or group size until your child is ready to transition to a larger one.

    » Think about adult/child ratio when choosing a program. Are there enough adults interacting with the children to promote positive peer interaction and ward off negative behaviors?

    » Bring your child to a new academic or extracurricular program before classes begin so he can meet the teacher and get familiar with the setting and routine.

    » Let the teacher know your child is shy and stay in contact throughout the year to address problems that may arise.

    » Encourage play dates in your home. Invite one friend over several times until your child feels comfortable interacting with him. Slowly add one or two more children. Also encourage your child to go to his friends’ houses to play.

    » Prepare your child for social events to alleviate anticipation and fear of the unknown.

    » Role-play social situations. Try different scenarios, such as meeting a new peer at school. Switch roles so your child sees the situation from both angles. Talk about his feelings. Repeat role-playing situations to build confidence.

    » Take time to listen to your child and understand his feelings and fears. Validate hisconcerns. If he's in a panic, wait until he calms down to encourage dialogue

    » Affirm your child’s character and person ality. Remember he will probably always be timid by nature, but with practice and preparation he can
    suc cessfully navigate social situations.