By Dr. Noel Swanson
Q. “My 7 year old son suffers with extreme shyness, in fact he will hardly talk to anyone outside of the family. What can I do to encourage him?”
A. Some children are naturally slower than others to warm to people. Still, they can usually learn to overcome their fears and become less anxious. You have to take one step at a time, starting from where they are, and building on each success.
Look for things he likes to do and is good at. This will build self- confidence. He will also have more things to talk about. If you can find things for him to do, involving others, better still. Don’t force him to do anything, but also don’t make it easy for him to get out of it. A lot of time children will say they don’t want to do something, even when they know inside that they’ll have a great time.
Deliberately set up some social situations as learning experiences for him. Start with easy ones and then build up. For example, going to the movies with a friend is dead easy – they sit in the dark and don’t have to talk to each other at all! Yet they can have fun together.
Start with familiar structured activities with few people. As he gains confidence in being and interacting with people, then set up more challenging situations. Always set them at a level at which he will succeed, and quit while it is going well! The everyone will want to do it again.
Make the social situations revolve around things he likes to do. For example if he enjoys computer games, invite a friend over. Start with one and the next time invite two or three. The kids will like talking about and playing the games together.
When it’s time to visit adults, tell them about your son’s latest adventures playing the computer game. Let him be the one to correct you about any details. Hopefully, he’ll become engaged and start talking about some of the high points for him. You can even clue the adults in ahead of time about things to ask him.
If he doesn’t respond, don’t force him and don’t make excuses for him. It is his decision to talk or not. He will have to live with the consequences. It will be easier on him if you try to draw him into conversations. You might ask him a specific, open-ended question about the game. It might be something like: “How did Mario get lost in the Mansion in the first place?” Don’t put him on the spot by asking a yes or no question and don’t talk about difficult things or subjects he doesn’t like.
It will take time, but your son will find confidence in talking and being around people. Gradually, he’ll take more chances and talk about things he isn’t so sure of. If you help him to make talking fun, then he’ll do it more. Conversely, if it’s hard or embarrasses him, then he’ll do it less.
Finally, don’t call him “shy”. The more he hears you say this, the more convinced he will be that that is just how he is and that he cannot change. In time he might even use this as an excuse: “I can’t do that – I’m too shy!” Instead, emphasise his positive qualities – his gentleness, kindness, politeness etc.
It may all take some time, but if you keep it all positive and affirming, he should get there.
About the Author:
Dr. Noel Swanson, Consultant Child Psychiatrist and author of The GOOD CHILD Guide, specializes in children's behavioural difficulties and writes a free newsletter for parents. He can be contacted through his website on Expert Parenting Advice.