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How to Support Your Shy Kid

While shyness is normal and not something to worry about, there are some research-backed strategies for helping your shy kid overcome her fears. One thing parents should not do is pander to their shy kids and protect them from challenging situations. If your 3-year-old refuses to join the other kids in her first ballet class, don’t respond with, “Oh sweetie, I’m so sorry, we’ll never come here again,” and then drop her from the class. Doing this sends the message that your child was right to be terrified — that ballet classes are objectively traumatizing — and it also denies your child the chance to develop the skills she needs to overcome her fears. While the studies in this area tend to be small, multiple papers have found that shy kids fare worse when they have overprotective parents.

The other extreme, however, can be just as bad — you don’t want to roll your eyes and push your terrified kid into the horde of arabesque-ing preschoolers, because doing so will only further distress and overwhelm her, making her more terrified of situations like that in the future. Research has linked these kinds of insensitive responses to an increased risk for anxiety in kids.

Ideally, then, you want to acknowledge your child’s feelings and provide support, but also encourage her to take steps forward. “It’s following the child’s lead and allowing them to go at their own pace, but at the same time, making sure that they actually keep going,” Dr. Pérez-Edgar said.

Consider, too, that the pace may be slow. When you bring your shy toddler to a play date with an unfamiliar kid, he might sit on your lap the whole time. That’s fine; that’s step one. On the second play date — yes, there should be a second play date — your kid might say a few things to the other child but still, periodically, have a death grip on your leg. But by the third play date, he may well be off and running.

Shy kids often benefit from walking and talking through nerve-wracking situations in advance, so they have an idea of what to expect and how to act when they’re in them. “Knowing what to do makes the situation much easier for a kid to cope with,” explained Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a New Jersey-based psychologist. For instance, Dr. Kennedy-Moore said, I could have given my daughter a plan of attack before we walked into that birthday party: First, I might have told her to find the pile of presents and add her gift to it; next, to find the birthday girl and say hello; and finally, to look at what the other kids were doing and join in if it looked fun.

Likewise, if you want your child to get better at introductions, practice the four steps of friendly greetings at home, Dr. Kennedy-Moore suggested. Step one: Look the other person in the eye (or in the middle of the forehead if eye contact is too overwhelming). Step two: Smile. Step three: Say hello. Depending on your child’s age, you might want to practice handshakes, too. I still remember the first time an adult held his hand out to my son; he looked at the man like he was an alien and gave him a sideways high-five.

Also, provide your child with the support she needs in the moment, because social situations really can be overwhelming for little kids. Maybe you say, “When we meet new people, you’re going to say hello, but you can squeeze my hand,” Dr. LoBue suggested. You want to send the message that, “I’m going to be this secure base for you — I’m going to be there and help you because I understand that you’re feeling nervous,” she continued. It’s also O.K., every once in a while, to scoop up your child and flee from a situation that you know is too overwhelming for him. I have a vivid memory of carrying my shrieking son out of a Chuck E. Cheese once; that place is too much even for me, let alone for an easily overwhelmed toddler.

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