It can be hard to nail down a definition of "shyness." While an introvert doesn't mind working alone or being with a small group of friends, a shy person but want to take part in larger groups -- and just has trouble doing so. Shyness is defined as "tendency to feel awkward, worried or tense during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people" by the American Physiological Association, and this can be especially hard on children.
If your child seems perfectly content to observe what other kids are doing or to go do her own thing, she may be an introvert, and that’s not necessarily something that can be changed or something that needs changing.
If your child clearly wants to join what other kids are doing, but feels stressed about it or too embarrassed to try, that is probably shyness and there are things you can do to help her work through it.
After years of teaching dance class, raising my own kids and coming up with my own tricks to help shy kids engage with a group, I asked parents and teachers to build on these tips for me and picked my 13 favorite to share.
1. Prepare them for new situations
Shyness is most often triggered in new situations with unfamiliar people. Shy kids don’t tend to like surprises or having new environments "sprung" on them. Talk to your kids ahead of times about new situations and let them know what to expect.
2. When possible, acclimate them slowly
It’s easy to be overwhelmed in new situations. If you sense that there will be a lot for your child to take in – new people, a new place, a new routine – it can help to introduce her early so she has time to adjust and get comfortable.
Take them to meet teachers and see new spaces before they start a class.
Have low-key playdates with one or two new classmates before school starts so that they have a buddy from day one.
Role-play meeting new friends or asking the teacher for help.
3. Encourage them to communicate their feelings
Just like adults, a lot of kids won’t want to talk (or don’t know how to talk) about uncomfortable feelings. If your child isn’t able to tell you how she feels, encourage communication by giving her a task to complete or having her talk about a pretend character in a similar situation.
Ask her to draw a picture of her fears, write a story about a little girl on her first day of preschool, or pretend play that her stuffed animals are on the playground and a new animal wants to join them.
4. Don’t label your child as shy
I’ve done this before, and even as I was doing it I thought, "I shouldn’t be doing this."
If your child is hesitant in a situation, don’t say to the teacher or other kids, "She’s shy." That can be embarrassing and confusing to your child and leave them wondering, "What is shy? Is that a problem with me? Does that disappoint you?"
It can also become an excuse for your child. "I’m shy so I don’t have to try new things or be polite."
5. Encourage them to be polite despite their fears
I try to teach my kids that even if they are nervous or feel unsure, they can be polite. If an adult or child says hello to my daughter, I expect her to say hello in return (even if she’s hiding behind my leg while she says it). I also expect her to say her name when she’s asked and to say thank you when someone offers her something.
I think there’s a fine line between allowing our kids to have boundaries and allowing our kids to be rude. I’m not doing my daughter any favors by letting her make a sour face in response to a friendly hello. I know that making friends is what will ease her transition in new situations, and no one makes friends by being rude – even if the rudeness is an extension of shyness.
6. Never let them see you sweat
Your own anxiety over your kid’s anxiety only compounds the problem. In my experience, shy kids tend to be sensitive kids and sensitive kids are very tuned in to the energy of others – especially the energy of their parents. If you’re stressed, they’re stressed.
This means that we have to do our best to seem relaxed and not make a big deal out of new situations. If our child clams up, we have to purposefully open up and remain calm.
7. Praise them and correct them in private
Shy kids don’t want to be the center of attention, whether for good or bad. If you find that your kid gets embarrassed even when you are complimenting them in front of others, don’t gush about them or dote on them in public. Keep compliments short and casual or save your praise for when you are alone.
And, unless your child commits an atrocious act of misguided behavior in public (which shy children rarely do because they don’t want attention), save your behavior corrections for the car ride home.
8. Don’t be late
Whether you're taking your child to an hour long class, a party or a full day of school, he'll acclimate better by being one of the first to arrive instead of being the last.
It’s also stressful for them when parents are late to pick them up. They get nervous about being the center of attention and they are embarrassed that a teacher or other adult has to wait for them. So don’t be surprised if you get the cold shoulder when you’re a little late picking up your kid.
9. Give them a prop
When it’s allowed, let your kid have a toy they can show and talk about to other kids. It’s a buffer, an easy conversation starter, and something to focus on that’s not about them.
It can also ease their anxiety to have something familiar in their hands.
10. Help narrow the focus or offer a more comfortable alternative
After years of teaching dance I’ve learned a trick: if I put on music and say, "This is a free dance. Dance any way you want," there will be at least one student who just stands there for an entire song. But if I give the kids a ribbon to dance with or an emotion to portray, all the students will free dance.
A simple instruction or confine helps shy kids by giving them a focus instead of overwhelming them with options.
On playdates, start an activity right away and encourage the kids to join in instead of staring at one another awkwardly by the front door.
On the way to school, help your son decide what activity he’ll play during free time so he has a plan. "Are you going to play with blocks or Play-Doh today?"
If someone asks your child about school, help narrow the topic. "Oh, tell her what you made in art class today." Or, if someone asks your child for a hug, suggest a fist bump or high five instead.
11. A good teacher is your best partner
Classes and sports offer a great low-key way for kids to socialize because the focus is not on socializing. They’re concentrating on playing soccer or painting, and the interaction with other kids is secondary.
Good teachers and coaches (whether they teach an hour long gymnastics class or a full day of school) know exactly how to help shy kids transition. And, believe it or not, it’s not always best for you to be the buffer. I’ve seen many shy kids acclimate faster without their parent around. So follow a teacher’s advice if they tell it’s best for you to leave the room.
12. Put your child in performing arts classes
It may seem completely counterintuitive to put a shy kid in an acting class but many shy kids actually excel onstage, because they’re acting like someone else. They’re playing a character and not themselves. It takes the pressure off.
As a teacher and a mom, I’ve seen acting, dance, and music classes help shy kids immensely. Improv is a particularly helpful skill since it encourages confidence and a sense of humor.
13. Let them do what they excel at doing
Help your child find her thing (something she’s passionate about) and then you’ll be helping her find her people. I’ve seen it many times over in the arts, but I’m sure it applies to sports and other activities as well.
When a child loves singing, they socialize more easily in a music class because they feel comfortable with themselves and they have something in common with the other kids in the class.
There are Lego building clubs, karate camps, language immersion classes, art workshops, music schools, local sports leagues, community theaters – so many options to find something that our kids are passionate about. And if an opportunity is not already offered near you, you can start it yourself or find it online.
We can give our kids many tools to help them work through their shyness and be brave, bold, and proud of themselves. Then, we only have to figure out how to overcome our own fears.