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Help your shy child blossom

Your little one will learn to open up with a few of these hints

A friend says hi to your son at the house and, rather than reply, he hides behind you, clutching your legs. The behavior is typical of young children, experts say, but there can be more than meets the eye when it comes to being shy. Shyness is a personality trait – good in some ways, not so healthy in others.

“Her shyness and fear of trying new things made her completely frozen in reaching her milestones,” says Poughkeepsie’s Alyssa Barnes of her 21-month-old daughter Talia. “It completely affects her.” Barnes knew her daughter’s shyness could be a problem. Talia was diagnosed with speech and cognitive delays, and treatment resulted in a major change. “Now that she finally tried talking and is not afraid,” says her mom, “she is far above average in her abilities.”

Shyness is not a disability

“Shyness is usually not disabling. It doesn’t stop a child from having friends,” says Rhonda Hauge, LCSW, a child therapist at Bridges Counseling Group in Fishkill. “The more pride he feels in himself, the more comfortable he’ll be.”

Take Gage Bucey. The three-year-old was shy like his mom, Kathy, and would hide behind her when strangers approached. Gage was nothing like his six-year-old sister and would sometimes cry when certain people spoke to him. That was until he started pre-school last fall.

READ MORE: 9 ways to help kids grow into healthy adults

“He has opened up a lot,” says the Pleasant Valley mom. “Now he warms up and just starts playing with the other kids.” Some children are gregarious by nature, while others prefer to hold back physical and emotional response while they determine if the stranger is someone they should talk to. You don’t have to force your child to be friendly, but children should learn to use proper manners during social situations. 

Be the change you want to see in your kids

Extroverted parents and/or siblings could also cause a child to be shy since she won’t feel the need (or the chance) to speak up. It may not seem possible in the younger set, but shyness is inherent and has a lot to do with self-esteem. Hauge suggests starting small when it comes to shy kids.“Have a play date with one or two other kids instead of a large group,” says Hauge. “A structured environment will help the child feel more comfortable.”

In school, you can ask your child’s teacher to pair her up with a buddy or encourage a friendship with someone who has similar interests (dolls, cars, etc.) While you can help control social situations when your child is young, it’s more difficult as kids get older.

READ MORE: Why is your child shy?

If you think your child is shy, one of the worst things you can do is tell him (or others) so. Continually calling your child shy, bashful or timid may lead him to think there is something wrong. But, describing your child as quiet, reserved, or cautious actually sounds more like a compliment.

“You can boost self confidence by helping kids to recognize their strengths,” adds Hauge. “It’s much harder for kids today. Once a child is 8, 9, or 10, they might start isolating themselves and they might have nightmares. Whatever self-esteem issues they have, it’s best to get a handle on it when they’re young so it’s not a problem in adolescence. If there is a sign of a problem, you should seek help.”
For Barnes, her patience has been helpful.

At home with her parents, Talia is “loud, happy and wild.” Barnes has taken advice to “just expose her to as many experiences as possible.” She has been taking Talia to a gymnastics class weekly for more than three months. But it wasn’t until recently that she actually laughed and smiled. “It makes me sad that she is missing out on so much fun because of her shyness,” says Barnes. “I hate to see her unhappy and I want her to feel comfortable around other people. It is a work in progress.”

Liz Consavage Vilato is a freelance writer living in Dutchess County.