We often work with children who find it challenging to say “hello”, answer questions, speak in front of a group, join in, separate from their parents and participate in new situations. Shyness occurs when children become anxious in social situations. Most children will display shyness at one point or another, however for some children it can start to impact upon their ability to interact and participate on a daily basis.
Children who are shy often experience an overactive fear system. This means that unfamiliar and unexpected situations may in fact trigger a stress response in the brain which activates the body’s fear response to fight, flight, freeze. If this response is triggered it becomes challenging for children to think rationally and they might become upset, clingy, run away, disengage/refuse to participate or show reluctance to speak. Some children might even become physically sick.
How can I help my child to overcome their shyness?
- Understanding emotions– Help your child understand their emotions by giving feelings names and encouraging them to talk about how they are feeling. We regularly play games using Bear Cards: Ask your child to identify how the bears are feeling, ask what might have happened to make them feel that way, ask them to think of a time when they felt that way, use the cards to prompt them to show you how they are feeling. The Zones of Regulation Program can also be an extremely helpful resource in assisting your child to acknowledge emotions and understand how it is impacting their actions.
- Validate emotions – Show empathy for how your child is feeling. For example: “It looks like you might be feeling worried about starting school, it is OK to feel that way, I felt scared on my first day too.” Simple validating how they are feeling can make sure that they do not feel alone and can start the conversation for how to go about solving the problem.
- Develop understanding by using books– There are a range of commercially available books that are wonderful for assisting kids to be brave, manage fear and shyness and learn about how to act in social situations. A few of my favourites:
- Calming strategies– For some children, they may need to be taught strategies to help calm their body down and inhibit the fear response so that they can then think rationally when they encounter a stressful situation. Deep breathing can trick the brain into returning back to a calm state. We often use a free app called Breathe Think Do with Sesame.
- Video modelling– Model me kids DVDs are great for explicitly teaching social skills such as greetings, answering and talking on topic.
- Role play– Use your child’s favourite toys and figurines to practise and prepare for new or stressful situations.
- Set achievable goals– Start small and gradually build up as your child’s confidence increases. For example, if you wanted your child to work on greetings, the initial goal might be for your child to say hello to familiar people like Grandma and Grandpa, then you could progress to saying hello to their class teacher, their friends and then eventually being able to say hello to a new child at the park. It is important to provide lots of praise. Many children respond well to having a reward chart to celebrate their success.
Kate Kleinau- Occupational Therapist
Please feel free to ask questions or give me your feedback. I am always more than happy to answer any emails personally.