Parents of shy children often ask me “What should I do with my reserved child?”

So I wanted to share some tips based on my experience and research.

First, recognize that most likely you are blessed with a sensitive, deeply caring child. These qualities generally make them slow to warm up to strangers or may approach social relationships cautiously but this need not be an impediment in their happiness or success.

The harder you pull, the more the shy child retreats

*This is gender neutral discussion and him is just used for illustration*

It’s tempting to want to help the shy child. But be careful—the more you pull, the more some children recoil. You can’t pull a child out of shyness. It’s better to create a comfortable environment that lets the child’s social personality develop naturally.

Never label a child “shy.” On hearing these labels children start sensing something’s wrong with them, and this will make them feel even more shy. Labels also affect the way others treat your child. Calling the child “shy” can make him over solicitous, as though there is something they should do to “help” or fix it. If you are going to visit a relative and you want your quiet child to make a good first impression, avoid the temptation to say, “Don’t be so shy, she won’t bite.” That’s guaranteed to make him clam up. The already self-conscious child is likely to become even more shy. Tell the child ahead of time what’s expected of him, a simple “hi” and quiet, polite behavior. Don’t ask more than you can reasonably expect. Keep the attention off the child, and as he gets comfortable, trust that the relative will come to appreciate him. Encourage your child to bring along one of his favorite activities (for example, art supplies or a board game) that the relative can use as a bridge to communication.

The mouthy mother and the mousy child

The combination of an extroverted, domineering mother and a more reserved child is a set-up for shyness.

*Disclaimer: Child’s name changed to protect identity*

A parent came to enroll a little shy polite private five year old girl called Shreya for my creative learning classes at CATS. Her first sentence to me was “ My child is very shy, will she be able to improve her social skills thanks to CATS?” I assured her I would do my best and tried to create a bond with little Shreya. I asked her a few questions about her age, school and friends.

As soon as she opened her mouth to answer, her mother interrupted. “She is……” said her mother, and went on to tell me in detail. I asked the child, “So Shreya, Aarya is your best friend then ?” Within a millisecond of her first syllable, the mother interrupted again,“ Yes but she needs to make more friends and…” The previously happy little girl turned into a withdrawn little mouse, cowering more and more as her mother’s pitch escalated.Toward the end of our meeting, her mom chided her daughter, “Now, Shreya don’t be shy, tell miss more about your hobbies.”

Shreya’s mother, a deeply caring and committed mother, didn’t intentionally override her social development that was just her temperament. Shreya didn’t try to be shy, she was just born quiet. But this mismatch of temperaments kept Shreya from developing communication skills (at least in the presence of her mother) and her mother from learning listening skills. Without passing judgment on which temperament types are “better,” I explained how some temperament matches impede development. I suggested that if she became more reserved around Shreya , she would become more outgoing around her. Shreya’s next appointment went much better. Her mother sat quietly behind her and nodded approvingly when her child spoke.

And when the child was quite, we respected that. We worked on her over time to engage her as often as possible. Encouraging her development was crucial for sustained development. However, there is a fine line between encouragement and overwhelming. Work with an experience educator to ensure sustained development without going overboard.So lets accept our children just how they are and help them gently without over shadowing their personalities. Here are some ideas you can try to help them:

  • WORK ON SOCIAL SKILLS: Give your child chances to practice his social skills .whenever you can. In the store, encourage him to pay the cashier, invite a friend over to play so your child can get more practice being with peers. Teach them social “door openers” for greeting others and speaking to them in person or on the telephone, especially assertive requests (“Can I play, too?”)
  • Display their artwork or assignments for others to see at home.
  • OFFER FEEDBACK: Praise or reward your child for small steps, like saying “hi” or waving. If they freeze up in front of someone, talk about it. Discuss things she can try the next time.
  • EXPRESS EMPATHY: Tell your child that you can see they’re feeling shy, and that you feel that way too sometimes. Share stories about times when you overcame your own shyness.

Hug your quiet child. Be proud of your child. Every child is unique and recognizing your child’s unique qualities and helping enhance those is your job as parents.