How to Help Your Super-Shy Child

Do you ever wonder why some preschoolers have long, involved conversations with people they've just met, while your shy child tries to melt into your legs if the 8-year-old down the street just says hi?

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“About 15 percent of kids are born with a nervous system that’s like a tightly coiled spring,” explains Dr. Robert Coplan, a psychology professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University who researches shyness in preschoolers. “They encounter something new and their heart rate ramps up and stays up. Even in non-stressful situations, their heart rates are a little higher than non-shy kids.” However, there are lots of things you can do to help your child feel more comfortable in social situations.

The occasion: family holiday get-together

Talk to your child beforehand about what to expect: noise, lots of activity, people he knows (cousin Madison) and people he may not remember (great-uncle Bob). “Give him a specific job to do. Say, “Okay, you’re going to give this gift to grandma and smile at her when she says thank you, and then we’ll take a break for a minute,” says Dr. Coplan. “Then a little while later, when all eyes aren’t on you, the two of you can go and have a longer visit with grandma. That way, you’re showing your child that social skills are expected, without the pressure of a lot of attention from other people.”

The occasion: organized activity or playgroup

Take small steps. Start with a play date with one other child and have your child show the other something she knows how to do and is good at. Then, work your way up to bigger groups. If he’s attending daycare or a regular lesson or activity, arrange for a one-on-one visit beforehand so he can get the lay of the land and meet the caregiver or teacher, advises Dr. Larry Tuff, a psychologist at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ont.

And try to strike a balance between reassurance and independence. Lori Ducharme of Belle River, Ont., noticed her daughter Emma’s shyness around age three, when the two of them went to dance or skating lessons. “She’d stick close to me and put her fingers in her mouth, and you could see she was intimidated around noisy or bigger kids,” she says. “We continued going to activities, but I didn’t push her to be a little social butterfly; pushing just makes it worse. I’d stay with her for a little while until she felt more comfortable, and then step back to the sidelines.”

The occasion: introduction to an adult

“Give your child options,” says Dr. Coplan. “Expecting a whole conversation may not be realistic. Say, “When you meet one of my friends, or one of our neighbours, I want you to say hello, or look at their face and smile, or give a high five.”

Whatever the situation, you can help your child develop positive coping techniques. “Young kids are all about feeling rather than thinking, so you have to help them remember, “Oh, it’s just tummy tingles. That’s how I feel sometimes but I’ll feel better soon,” says Dr. Tuff. “Deep breathing, using the abdomen rather than the chest, naturally slows down heart rate and decreases anxiety, so practice breathing like you’re blowing up a balloon in your tummy,” suggests Dr. Coplan.

When is shy too shy?

Some children take longer to ease into situations, “but if extreme shyness goes for an extended period of time and is stopping your child from doing stuff that’s normal and appropriate for a child that age, like going to school or having friends, it’s time to get some outside help from a professional,” says Dr. Coplan. “But the good news is that most shy kids grow up just fine.”

Lose the label

While it’s natural to want to explain your child’s behaviour by saying, “Oh, she’s just shy,” resist the temptation to label, cautions Dr. Coplan, because the child often sees it as an excuse not to try to be socially engaged. “Instead, say, “Maya is just taking a few minutes to check things out, but she’ll be in there with the other kids soon.” And what if you are shy yourself? “Don’t swoop in and protect your shy child from the world,” says Dr. Tuff. “She’ll pick up on your anxiety.”

Bonnie Schiedel is a freelance writer in Ignace, Ont. She plans to practice “balloon breathing” before intimidating interviews.

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