Here in Australia orientation is starting for our little ones to prepare for "big school" next year. While some kids can't wait and wish that they could start tomorrow, there are others that parents know will be clinging to their parent's leg for dear life. This year has hardly been fair for these little ones. Their opportunities to socialise, play in groups, participate in concerts and other activities that help prepare kids for school, have been put on hold or restricted. If your child was already on "the shy side", this year with all the Covid restrictions has definitely not helped them develop confidence.
There is a difference between shyness and anxiety or other conditions. Shyness usually refers to a child who wants to join in with other children and participate, but lacks the confidence to make that initial step. I am not talking about children who prefer to play in solitary play and are not really interested in making friendships. I'm also not talking about the more severe end of anxiety where children are anxious in several areas of their life and become very distressed frequently. The type of children I am talking about today are the ones that normally are very talkative and happy kids but when they are in a new environment or with unfamiliar people, they may withdraw and become quiet. However when they become comfortable they tend to find friends and play well.
The tendency to be shy is often a personality trait, It is not always a bad thing. These kids (and adults) tend to be cautious but thoughtful. They may warm up to people slowly, but once they do, they make strong friendship bonds. The reason we would have some concern for these kids is that when they lack the confidence to join in, they can become distressed and avoid new experiences. It can become a bit of a cycle where they will avoid social and new experiences. This then means they have less practice socially and then less confidence. It is okay for kids to be quieter but we still want them to be confident in themselves.
What we can do
Talk about feelings
Don't dismiss feelings with your kids, all feelings are okay. Try not to say "you don't need to be shy, there is nothing to be afraid of". Instead say, "I know it is hard when we meet new people". Ask what it is that makes them uncomfortable, is it that they don't know how to join a game or are they worried that the others will be mean. If they are able to tell you what their concerns are then you will have a clue to how to handle it. If you know what worries them, you can make a plan with them to manage it. But don't rush the plan, let them know you understand the feeling first so that they know you are with them and not going to push something on them.
Make a Plan
Kids who tend to be shy generally won't like new things sprung on them. They need time to plan and process what will happen. Talk to your child about school starting or whatever the new even is. Talk to them about who will be there and what it will be like. Don't overwhelm them with information so they will be more anxious, but do tell them where they are going, who will be there, what they will do and roughly how long it will take. If you can't stay, tell them when you will be back. This is a perfect time to talk about your plans and how they will work. If they are worried what can they do? Are there people they know that they can play with? Remind them of similar times when they have coped well and even enjoyed so that they have something to compare it to.
Practice makes perfect
Part of the cause of shyness is that kids don't know what they should do or they don't have the confidence to do it. There are so many areas of socialising that can be practiced. Role-play saying "hello, my name is ....". You can role play different social situations such as asking to play, putting your hand up to ask to go to the toilet, asking to take turns and all sorts of experiences. When you role-play you can practice using a confident voice, making eye contact and holding their head up. Have fun with this and encourage them when they get it. Be specific, such as "I loved how clear your voice was". That way they will know what to do and every time they practice they are building confidence. When they do go to the event and their first instinct is to be shy, you can say "remember what we practiced? You can do this".
The only way our kids will feel more confident in social environments is to experience them. You don't have to push your child into every activity, this will probably have a negative effect. But if you involve your child in groups and activities that they are interested in, then you are giving them more opportunities to navigate the social world and enjoy the experience. Have play dates with friends, do dancing or sports or whatever your child enjoys.
Find the kind People
Part of shyness is that they become overwhelmed in their own feelings that they can't see outside. Make sure you are helping them to see kindness around them. When someone says "hello" and smiles, point it out as something nice. If a child shares or asks them to play, then label it as kind. These quiet kids are good at observing, if we help them see the kind around them they will feel less fearful to join in.
Social stories are really helpful for a child to understand what they can expect will happen in a situation. They can be really fun to make and by doing this with your child you can see the experience from their perspective and give them some control.
Social stories are pretty simple to write. Start by saying where they are going. For example, "on Mondays I go to preschool". Then write something about the preschool and perhaps their teacher. Write that mum/dad will have to leave but that is okay because they always come back. Write what happens during the day at preschool, write the normal routine. Don't try and rush it. Do it with as much detail as they need. Make sure you acknowledge how they feel. Write for example "sometimes I feel sad when mummy leaves". Then make sure you add what they can do if they feel this way. "If I feel sad I can......". Finish the book by saying at the end of they day mum or dad will come and pick me up. Have your child draw the pictures or at least pick photos to use in the book to given them a sense of ownership of the book.
Shy children are usually beautiful sensitive and caring children. We don't want to change who they are but we also don't want them to miss out on experiencing their best. We can help our kids build their confidence to that unfamiliar experiences so that they don't have to be too scary. We don't have to turn them into raging extroverts but by helping them recognise their feelings, have a plan, practice and see the kindness in others we are giving them the tools they need to have positive experiences.