The best ways to encourage your shy child in social situations

Kinderling News & Features

We live in a world that encourages self-expression, confidence and communication. All of which can be challenging for a shy child. So how can we help shy children navigate the world around them so they can thrive? 

What does ‘shyness’ really mean?

“It's a little bit like being an introvert but it's not as extreme as being diagnosed with social anxiety. So, it's just in the middle there,” explains Dr Kimberley O'Brien, the principal child psychologist at Quirky Kid clinic. 

Kimberley says that people who are shy are actually quite socially aware, but are cautious so it tends to take a while for them to warm up. 

Listen to Kimberley on Kinderling Conversation:

The important thing to know about shyness is that we need to consider the individual. Some shy traits are great, especially when it encourages self-reflection and time to read.  But, Kimberley says, it becomes a bit more of a challenge when your child wants to be engaged in socialising at parties - but avoids attending them! 

Fortunately, there are steps parents can take to make it all easier for a child to tackle social situations like birthday parties: 

Desensitise children to new situations

Kimberley suggests walking or driving by the location if it's unfamiliar. If it’s a public place like a trampoline park, it’s easy enough to investigate further. 

You could try and boost the child's curiosity by saying ‘let's go and have a look inside,’” Kimberley suggests. You could head in to have a look at how to register, where parents can hang out and generally researching the whole experience for your child ahead of the event. 

Leave plenty of time

“On the day of the event, try to arrive early so that you know that there is no time pressure,” Kimberley advises. Avoid placing pressure on your child to get in the middle of things before they feel ready. Wait until they’re comfortable enough to see the fun in the situation, and for them to realise they can cope. 

“It's kind of like spiralling from the outside and moving into a place where they're comfortable but not pushing them through that process,” Kimberley says. 

Let them settle in before saying hello 

You have perhaps seen (or experienced) a child who likes to hide behind their parent. Kimberley says this means their early warning signs are going off, and they feel like it’s not a safe situation.

“They don't feel comfortable taking that step forward or giving that person a kiss or a cuddle,” she explains. “For that young person, it's better to just give them space and give them something that they might find comfortable.” 

For example, you might bring along a book or a toy they can refer to when they’re feeling confronted by eye contact. Standing alongside a child, as opposed to front on, can also be less intimidating for them. It makes them feel like you’re working as a team, while they’re getting acclimatised. 

Try role playing to instil confidence ahead of time

Kimberley recommends role playing as a way of helping build confidence. You can put your child in the role of someone else, such as the birthday girl. You can practice greetings, eye contact and what you do when entering a room. 

“Showing them those social cues is really important because then they know what to expect and you can do that in the safety of your home.” 

Consider small, group activities

Some group ideas that aren’t so confronting for shy or withdrawn kids include tennis, or chess club, as they’re more one-on-one. 

Additionally, understanding what’s going on in the mind of a shy, small child can help you figure out what activities they would benefit from. “They tend to have a lot of cognitive activity going on so they're thinking a lot, they're analysing a lot, they're feeling anxious, cautious,” Kimberley explains. “A lot of that cognitive activity can kind of make them feel a little bit overwhelmed and so they struggle to express themselves.” 

“Things like creative play or theatre, outdoor play, art and music can often help them to start to loosen up, express themselves and then there's less of that cognitive activity. It's just more about play and that's a great way to introduce a shy person into a social setting.” 

This interview is brought to you by NIDA Open Summer courses. Help your kids get creative and discover what inspires them.