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What Do I Do About My Shy Kid?

Advice from a speech pathologist, a television announcer, a four-year-old and others

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

Next week, my son starts his first week of dance class, and honestly, I’m not quite sure how he’s going to do. It’s not the dancing itself that concerns me, as he’s been excited about this for weeks now, but I’m a little worried about his crippling shyness. He’s always struggled to make new friends and group settings are especially difficult. When he began pre-k last year, it took him weeks to get used to it — even by the end of it, in June, he still didn’t have more than a couple friends in his class.

Not to mention, at a family gathering, even though he usually knows everyone there, he still takes well over an hour to warm up, and that’s often through me coaxing him as best I can without upsetting him. This is why I’m so worried about dance class: I know he wants to feel successful, but I also know that going to a once-a-week class with a dozen other kids might not give him enough time and exposure to get used to it and maybe he won’t enjoy himself — or worse, participate — at all.

I just want to do whatever I can to help him through this social anxiety so he can get what he wants out of the class, so I’ll take whatever help I can get.

Basically: What do I do about my shy kid?

The Expert Advice

Veronica Acevedo, child therapist and mother: For a child that’s shy, the most important thing is to validate their feelings. Let them know that these are normal feelings and that it’s okay to feel that way, because part of being shy is probably linked to an underlying anxiety. You can validate their feelings by naming them, because many times a shy child can’t say they’re shy. By getting down to their eye level and talking about this, it lets them know that you see them. 

Using my own daughter as an example, earlier this week she started doing dance lessons for the first time and she felt a bit overwhelmed, so I got down on her level and told her, “I know you’re feeling really shy, but you can do this. Now let’s go find your teacher.” A lot of times in a group setting, you can anchor a child by giving them their safe person in a class, and that can be the teacher or even a peer if they know someone there already. Whoever that safe person is, the child can go to them and say, “I need help,” if they need it.

My daughter also brought her doll with her to class because sometimes a transitional object can be very helpful. A transitional object is when a child brings an item from a place that’s comfortable to a place that’s uncomfortable. It can help comfort the child because it’s from a familiar place, almost like bringing a piece of home with you.

I also let her dance teacher know that she can get a bit overwhelmed, so halfway through the class she stepped out and told me my daughter was doing really great and then, at the end of the class, she said that she did really well. When it was over, my daughter was happy with the class and smiling, but when I mentioned that she’s going again tomorrow, she seemed to get worried and said, “But mommy, I was really shy today,” which is the perfect opportunity to tell her what she accomplished. I said, “But look how much fun you had and look at the new friends you made!” Tomorrow, she’ll go and she’ll probably be shy again, but she’ll be a little less shy — and after a few times, she’ll probably be fine. 

It’s a parent’s job to push their child, but to do so in a loving, kind way. If a child is pushed to the point where they’re screaming and crying, that’s just going to make it so you won’t be able to reason with them because they’re so upset. If you give up and leave, that’s also bad because it perpetuates the anxious feeling that something is unsafe and that it’s better to leave. Instead, if a child is really struggling, you may need to remove them from the environment for a minute and talk to them and let them know they can handle it. Either you can remind them of their safe person or maybe you can use a superhero as an example and encourage them to be brave like their favorite hero.

Really, it comes down to knowing your kid and taking the time to let them know that you understand their feelings, but that meeting new people or going into crowded environments is something that they can handle.

Kayla, special needs high school teacher: A lot of my students can be pretty shy, especially when it comes to interacting with the Gen Ed kids. I let them know that they don’t need to be friends with everybody, but I do try to give them the proper social skills so that they can know what to say around new people so they won’t be overwhelmed by it. Usually that means that I teach them to introduce themselves and how to act appropriately — whatever I can do to help them feel empowered in a situation that might make them feel uncomfortable.

As a teacher, I don’t really give them the choice of whether or not I call on them, because if I don’t call on them, they’re not being an active learner, which means I’m not doing my job. What I tend to do with really shy children, though, is that I’m not going to call on them for the math question they won’t know the answer to, but if they’re good at science, I’ll call on them for a science question. That way I know they can answer and feel confident about it; then I praise them and offer lots of positive reinforcement.

I also think it helps to get a shy kid — or any kid really — involved in group activities that they’re interested in, so if they’re interested in soccer, enroll them in soccer. This way they can bond with other children over a common interest. 

Joel Godard, announcer for Late Night with Conan O’Brien: Without forcing them or anything, I’d encourage the parents of a shy child to maybe get their child involved in acting or some kind of performance. As a shy child myself, I found comfort onstage because, as a performer, you get to hide behind a mask — whether literal or figurative — and a mask can be comforting to a shy person. Performing can also give them a bit of a push, which might help them, too. 

For me, I remember the first time I ever got a laugh on stage was in the first grade. It was a very empowering feeling for the chubby, reserved little kid that I was. I remember immediately thinking, “I like that!” and wanting more of it. I also had the benefit of having parents who believed it would help me to be a well-rounded person. 

Following that stage performance, I also did a radio play at my local station when I was in the fourth grade. It was a Christmas play, and after having done that, all I ever wanted to do was talk on the radio. Years later, at age 16, WMBG, the radio station where I’d done that little radio play, was on the third floor of the building where I went to school and I’d go by and look in the windows. I was obsessed with all of it, but I was a bit too shy to knock on the door. I’m not sure, but it must have been my dad who approached the head of the radio station and told him about me and my interest in radio, because one day the head of the station came to me and said he’d heard I had a good voice and asked if I wanted to come work at the station. 

The rest — as they say — is history. I worked in radio for a number of years before coming to NBC where I was the announcer for Conan O’Brien’s Late Night for 17 years and the voice of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for a number of years. All because, despite being a shy kid, I stuck with my passion and because I had parents who were very encouraging. 

McKenzie Greene, certified speech language pathologist: As a speech language pathologist, my scope of practice is to help people facilitate communication and many of the children I see are shy due to a challenge with their speech. When I’m working with a new child for the first time, I might use something that’s familiar to them to help along communication. For example, bubbles are great for this because children know what’s going to happen and the bubbles facilitate an environment where there’s a communication exchange going on, but the stakes are really low. With bubbles, they know what they need to say and there’s going to be something positive that comes out of it. From there, we may play a game together where we don’t have to talk, but we’re just looking at each other. All of this can help to build trust with a new person and help with a child’s shyness.

For a parent to help bridge that communication with a new person, it really helps to pre-set children to help them understand what to expect. So, for a kid who has a session with me, I find that those who transition the best do so because their parents had pre-set them with what to expect. That might be like, “You’re going to go see Ms. Mac. You’re going to have speech for 30 minutes, and then you’re going to get a lollipop. Afterward, we’re going to go home.” By understanding what’s to come, they can better handle it. 

It’s also helpful to teach your children coping strategies so that when they’re in a situation where they’re feeling shy or overwhelmed, they can turn to those strategies. Transitional objects can be very helpful in this regard. The same for deep breathing. I also find that social stories are very effective. A social story might sound like this: “When I go into the lunch room, it might be loud. If it’s too loud for me, I can, do A, B or C. If I feel uncomfortable and I’m not ready to talk to anybody, I can get a drink of water.” Or maybe they can take a walk. By preparing them with these social stories and going over them before uncomfortable situations, eventually the child will be able to identify what will help them in that moment when they’re feeling overwhelmed. 

Lily, a four-year-old who can be pretty shy: When I’m feeling shy, I can take belly breaths like Ms. Mac showed me so I can feel better and so I don’t do bumpy speech. And I can hug my tiger Hobbes really squeezy because he makes me feel not shy.