Some young children bounce through life eager to try new experiences. Others hang back, cling to a parent’s hand, or duck behind Mom or Dad to peer out at the activities going on around them instead of joining in. If you’re the parent of a shy preschooler, you know that balancing the new experiences that your child needs with the safety and security you want to provide can be a tricky task.
Often shy children hang back because they are afraid of doing things wrong. Letting them know it’s all right to make mistakes and giving them an opportunity to move into social situations at their own pace is often the key to helping them become participants rather than observers. Want to help? Here are some ways to help shy preschoolers become a part of the group:
Allow Adjustment Time
“Shy people simply require extra time to adjust to novel or stressful situations, including even everyday conversations and social gatherings,” says Bernardo J. Carducci, founder of the Shyness Research Institute. One way to help shy children adjust is to give them a trial run of a new experience. For instance, go a little early to a party or an outing so your child gets used to the setting before it fills with people. Pave the way for the first day of school or a new activity by touring the building ahead of time. Try these tips for making a preliminary trip:
- Choose a time when it will be uncrowded to allow her to look around without social anxiety.
- Point out where different activities will occur. Show her where she’ll hang her coat, where she’ll sit, and where you’ll meet her at the end of the day.
- Introduce her to the teacher, coach or librarian.
- If possible, let her play with the toys or read a few books. This will raise her comfort level and make her adjustment easier when the time comes.
Practice Social Skills
They say that practice makes perfect, and getting a shy child comfortable with a new situation is no exception. If you want your preschooler to greet the teacher rather than mumbling or hiding behind you, let him play the teacher’s role. Act shy and have him coach you to speak up and look the teacher in the eye. Then reverse roles and have him show you he can do it correctly. If he’s heading to a birthday party, practice handing over a gift and wishing his friend a happy birthday. Role-play asking another child to play a game, share a toy, or go down a slide together. The more often he practices, the more natural these skills will become. Be sure to model these social skills yourself when you’re in public.
Schedule Play Dates
Make play dates with another shy child, preferably one who shares similar interests. “Whenever possible, allow your child to choose the playmate,” says Lisa Hess, a school counselor from Pennsylvania. “And, if you can host the play date or meet at a familiar place, your child will feel more comfortable as well, which can help relieve nerves.” Talk ahead of time about ways to make the visitor feel comfortable, too. Sometimes helping another child adjust will bring your introvert out of her shell.
Later, schedule play dates with a more boisterous child, who may encourage your child to try new activities. Extroverts may model the social skills your child needs. Avoid setting up play dates with domineering children who bully or criticize, because they can make the situation worse. The more children your child gets to know, the more likely she’ll be to participate in group activities. Plus, seeding a new school year or activity with at least one friend makes adjustment easier.
When your child hangs back in a new situation, allow him to cling a few minutes while you reassure him that you understand how he feels. “Staying calm and relaxed is key,” says Hess. “When everyone else’s child is playing independently, parents may feel pressured to involve a reluctant child before he or she is ready.” Once he’s more comfortable, suggest a way for him to get involved. Point out a child who is alone. If that child has been to your house for a play date, it will be easier for him to approach her. Or find an activity he especially enjoys. You may need to walk him over to get him started. Then try to include another child: “I bet Parker would love to help you build that block tower, wouldn’t you, Parker?” When the other child joins him, gradually back away.
When your child makes progress in a social situation, reinforce the success. “I noticed you shared the trucks with Caitlyn. That made her very happy.” “It was brave of you to ask Liam if you could play too. You two had a lot of fun, didn’t you?” “Reinforcing the positive feelings the interaction created in your child will help your child connect those good feelings to actions he finds difficult, such as sharing or inviting others to play,” Hess says. Positive feelings will make him more likely to repeat the behavior.
Expecting an introvert to be a social butterfly is unrealistic, but helping your child become more comfortable around others and giving him the necessary social skills to make friends and participate in activities will help him live a fuller, happier life.