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How Can I Encourage My Shy Child?


Girl holding notebook in front of face
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Question: How Can I Encourage My Shy Child?
My 4-year-old daughter is an incredibly shy child. She's loud and happy when it's just our immediate family, but bring a new person into the mix and it takes her a very long time to warm up. She says she likes preschool and she is learning, but she's very quiet and seems to have a hard time making friends. How can I encourage her to come out of her shell a little?

Some kids make it look so easy. Gregarious and affable, they can work a room with the best of them, laughing, playing and giving high-fives to every kid they meet. Within minutes, it seems, everyone knows their name and wants to be their friend. Forget playdates, it's likely this wanna-be Ashton Kutcher already has their own Twitter account and Facebook page.

Then there's the opposite end of the spectrum -- the shy child. A shy child can often be found hanging on to mom or dad, or in the absence of a trusted loved one, sitting by themselves, head down, not talking to anyone. They won't engage, hardly ever make eye contact and if they dare say anything at all, it's usually very difficult to understand them.

"She isn't like this at home," the confused and yes, even embarrassed parent, will tell the preschool teacher/pediatrician/person that your child won't acknowledge. "At home we can't get her to stop talking." And that's likely true. Because a shy child isn't intentionally being not friendly, but in the presence of someone new, or in a situation that makes her uneasy, it's easier to disengage.

The good news is, shyness is actually very common in the preschool years and is often a behavior that your little one will outgrow as she becomes more comfortable in her own skin. There are things you can do however, to build her self-esteem and encourage her to let that bubbly personality that you know and love shine through. Here's how.

Role Play
Put that wonderful preschool imagination to good use by acting out common scenarios that your little one may encounter on a regular basis. You can use dolls or puppets or just be yourselves. Have your child imagine that she (or her doll) is walking into a classroom. What does she do? What does she say? Then switch. You play the role of the shy child and let your little one be the grownup who helps her. Pay attention to the method she uses to comfort. It could give you some clues as to why your child is acting the way she is.

Share Your Own Shyness
Chances are you've had a time in your life where you were feeling a bit bashful yourself. Tell your child about it. Whether you talk about your first-day-of-work jitters or feeling nervous about the first time you played on your softball team, your empathy will show your child that they aren't alone in their shyness.

Ask Why
There could be a reason why your child acts one way at home and another in front of others. And while she might have trouble expressing herself, with some exploratory questions, you may be able to get to the root of the problem.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
You are going to know ahead of time if your child is facing a situation where they may feel uncomfortable. Maybe you are going to a large family birthday party or a meeting of your playgroup. That morning, talk to your child about where you are going, who is going to be there and what is going to happen. Having a game plan in place may help your little one to feel more comfortable.

Help Her Make Friends
Making friends doesn't come naturally to everyone, and for preschoolers, for whom this is a completely new activity, it can be a challenge. So intervene a little bit. Start off slowly, introducing your child to someone their age. Perhaps it is someone they know from school or even from the neighborhood. If they seem comfortable together and your child is warming up well, invite the other child over for a playdate. As your child grows comfortable in the presence of other kids, it's likely she'll carry that over into other places.

Don't Call Him Shy
While it's OK if your child acts shy (if the behavior gets worse or if you notice your child doesn't make eye contact or socialize at all, contact your pediatrician), you don't want to label it as such. Because the more you talk about it and give it a name, your child may perceive that there is something wrong with her. And of course there isn't. Being shy isn't bad, it's just part of your child's personality.

The preschool years are ones where your child is experiencing growth of all kinds on many different levels -- physical, emotional, behavioral and social. As with many developmental issues at this age, time, love and patience work wonders.

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