My kids come by their shyness honestly. I was so painfully shy when I was growing up that my classmates would ask my parents if I could speak. They weren’t sure because they had never heard me talk! Thankfully, after years of hiding behind my mom’s skirt, I grew out of my shyness. After all, it gets harder and harder to hide behind mom’s skirt!
A couple of my own children follow in my bashful footsteps. So I’ve learned a few tricks over the years for how to work through shyness in children. Although anxiety and shyness are not the same thing, some of these tips may work with anxious kids, too.
1. Homeschooling Helps Shy or Anxious Kids
When my oldest child went to a preschool program and kindergarten at our local public school, he withered instead of blossoming. Isaac's anxiety levels grew, and he became more and more shy. We were concerned when we started to homeschool that he would get worse from the isolation.
But, to our great surprise, homeschooling actually gave him the confidence he needed to come out of his shell. He made friends more easily at church, and his anxiety levels took a nosedive. He was suddenly so laid back and relaxed!
Homeschooling actually did the opposite of what we feared—exacerbating his shyness, and I am so thankful! I truly believe that homeschooling helps shy children build the confidence they need before heading out into the world.
2. Model & Practice Social Situations
Model and practice. Model and practice. Sometimes it seems that my days are much less about teaching and much more modeling and practicing.
In the case of shyness or social anxiety, we have found role playing or practicing a very effective tool. Since our children were old enough to speak, we’ve had them practice meeting people. They would stand up straight, look the person in the eye, hold out their hand, and say something like, “My name is Hannah. It’s so nice to meet you.”
Now, keep in mind that they were practicing with me. Of course, on occasion we were lucky enough to get a grandparent to help us practice! But practicing with a familiar person helps them to develop somewhat of a predictable script for what they need to do in certain situations. This gives them confidence because they know exactly what to do and say in “x” situation.
You can use the model and practice trick to work on all kinds of situations when shyness can cause misunderstandings or awkwardness:
- meeting people
- asking and answering questions
- ordering food at a restaurant
- asking to use the restroom
- asking for directions
Model and practice is also a great tool to use when working on uncomfortable or even dangerous situations. In addition to pleasantries, we’ve also coached our children on what to do if they feel uncomfortable in a situation, and every so often, we’ll have a practice session. I think this is especially important for shy children who struggle to speak for themselves.
3. Remember That Shyness is a Super Power!
We generally don’t recognize character traits as super powers in our children. After all, they are young and haven’t quite figured out how to channel that trait in a completely positive direction. However, the fact is that shy kids are likely to be introverts, and introverts have proven to be some of the world’s greatest thinkers and dreamers.
Introverts are also known for their humility, servant-hood, and their deep compassion for others. While some kids are bouncing off the walls (and don’t get me wrong here...that’s a super power too!), shy kids are sitting back, taking it all in. They are making mental notes about how not to behave, how Susan is feeling after the fall she took earlier, and how he or she can best stay out of the spotlight.
So instead of worrying, always keep in mind that shyness is simply an element of a blossoming personality, and it’s our job as parents and teachers to help them develop those super power traits to the fullest.
4. Provide a Safe Place for Your Shy Child to Talk
The downside to being shy is that you tend to bottle up a lot of emotion. This is definitely a negative way to handle big feelings. Consider doing what my mom did for me by providing a safe place to talk. I don’t think it was intentional to begin with, but the front seat of our old tan Crown Victoria became what we lovingly referred to as The Confessional Seat. For some reason, it seemed I was comfortable to pour out my heart when I sat in that seat. I think it was probably because I was alone with my mom, without interruptions, and didn't have to make eye contact.
These days, as a mom of four stair-step children, I understand that front seat conversations are not always the most private or peaceful. No worries! I have heard plenty of alternatives.
One mom invites her children in one-by-one for a tea time to talk and visit. For some families, the bedtime ritual provides a perfect framework for some great heart-to-hearts. I personally also always enjoyed talking to my mom in the kitchen while she cooked dinner. There are many variations on this idea.
Of course, a safe place not only refers to the actual location, but also the person on the receiving end. When giving a shy child the opportunity to talk freely, it should be just that—free. Allow them to explore their feelings, fairly uninterrupted. Most of the time, they don’t really need advice, just a trusted, listening ear.
I know my parents worried about me as a child, wondering if I would ever come out of my shell, but I did! And today, I’m so thankful for their patient guidance in my early years. Oh, and if you’re wondering, I started speaking to my peers in probably about the fifth grade, and by high school, they probably felt that they couldn’t keep me quiet!
And my oldest son, Isaac, who I mentioned earlier? Well, he is currently on a two week mission trip across the country. The only person he knew on the trip was my mother-in-law. I’m happy to report that he is having the time of his life! So hang in there, moms and dads, there is hope for the shy kids! They just have to hone their super power.