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Helping shy kids come out of their shells

Sarah Wassner Flynn is a New York City-based writer. She's contributed to magazines such as CosmoGIRL!, National Geographic Kids, Runner's World, Women's Health, Prevention and MetroSports New York. She is also the author of The Book of ...

No more Mr shy guy

If your kid suffers from shyness, he's not alone: Nearly one of two Americans claims to be shy. And as frustrating as it is to watch your child constantly clam up in new situations, the good news is that shyness is not necessarily debilitating. As you get them prepped to go back to school, here are some tips and tricks to help shy kids come out of their shells.

Shy BoyIt may be hard to believe, but many celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Beyoncé, and even David Letterman are all introverts. How can you help your child now so they can shine like the superstars they were born to be?

WHY SO SHY?

So where, exactly, does shyness come from? According to Dr Eric Fisher, Ph. D., a clinical psychologist and author of The Art of Empowered Parenting: The Manual You Wish Your Kids Came With, many children are born introverts. "A lot of times, shyness is considered part of temperament, meaning it's an innate behavior. It could be part of their genetic makeup to by shy," he says. Kids may also develop anxiety-related shyness as a reaction to childhood trauma, while others pick up the behavior from their environments, like being raised by shy parents.

SQUASHING SHYNESS

Regardless of why your child is shy, Fisher stresses that the approach to treating the behavior is generally the same across the board. "Basically, parents should be extremely slow and deliberate in their actions around the child," says Fisher. "Not only do shy kids need time to warm up, but it's also best when they're prepared as possible for any situation. It may take more effort on behalf of the parents, but taking some extra steps will really help the child come out of his shell."

In other words, patience -- and a lot of preparation -- is key, especially when it comes to dealing with change, like the start of a new school year. Fisher suggests taking your kid to school before the first day, showing him the classroom, and possibly meeting the teacher, too. Afterwards, talk to your child about anything he may be nervous. "Addressing your child's fears and concerns will help put them at ease," says Fisher.

This approach worked for Marjie Knudsen of Beaverton, Oregon, an author and mother of four. After struggling with her oldest daughter's shyness for years, she came up with a no-fail approach when getting her youngest -- and just as shy -- son ready for school.

"We'd go to the school, have him practice wearing his backpack, even have friends over that would be in his class so he could get used to interacting with them," says Knudsen, who penned the book, BRAVE: Be Ready and Victory's Easy, A Story About Social Anxiety, based on her own experiences with her children. "I always make sure he gets that exposure before he goes into class. The more ready you are ahead of time, the better off the kid will be."

And on her own time, Knudsen would talk to her son's teachers, asking them to engage her son as much as possible during the day. "Otherwise, kids can become invisible in the classroom, but there are good teachers who will try to draw them out," she says.

HELP WITHOUT HOVERING

While shy kids certainly need more TLC, you don't want to become your daughter or son's constant sidekick. Granted, if your young one explodes into a fit of hysterics the second you leave him alone in a new environment, the last thing you want to do is let him cry it out alone. But you can slowly ease him into the situation by sticking around until he's settled in before sneaking outside.

"You'd like for your kid to be able to interact with others without you around by the age of eight. But if you're trying to get him involved in new activities, stick around for a bit and fade into the background," suggests Fisher. "When you get back, let him know that you left. That'll help him realize that he's okay and had fun even if you weren't there."

Little tricks help, too. When Arizona-based mom Sharon Silver's son told her his "heart hurt" when he was away from her and melted into sobs when she dropped him off at pre-school, she came up with a clever way to help him get over his anxiety.

"One day on the way to school I asked him, 'what do you think the strongest thing in the world is?' He said it was a turtle shell from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So I told him, 'Before you get out of the car, wrap your heart in that shell to protect your sad heart until I see you this afternoon. The turtle shell will keep sadness away and let you have fun at school,"" she recalls. "That day, he flew out of school that day yelling 'it worked, it worked!'"

DON'T SPEAK

And as hard as it may be, try to fight the urge to be your child's spokesperson when he's being super shy. "This tends to send a message that you do not see him as capable of answering for himself," says Dr Vicki Folds, a leading expert in early childhood development. "Instead, say, 'He'll answer when he's ready.' Sure, there may be awkward silence, but at least your child will know that you believe in his ability to answer for himself. And then he'll believe in himself, too."

BEST shyness-beating activities

One of the best ways to squash shyness? Sign your kid up for sports. "Athletics offer interaction with other kids and can really boost self esteem," says Dr Fisher. While team sports like soccer are a great option, Fisher especially recommends those with one-on-one interaction, like tennis, karate, swimming, and gymnastics, which allow kids to shine individually without being overwhelmed by having to compete for field time.

Whichever sport your kid signs up for, make sure to be his number one fan: "Even if you kid is just standing there, tell him he did a great job," says Fisher. "Be as rewarding and encouraging as possible so they'll want to continue to get out there."

If your kid's not so sporty, activities like theatre and dance, which offer routine structure and interaction with other kids, work, too. Knudsen's daughter even excelled in cheerleading. "Because she memorized the cheers and was essentially following a set script, she knew she couldn't mess up," says Knudsen. "She totally shined out there."

WHEN TO SEEK HELP FROM A PRO

If you've tried the tricks and your kid's still burrowing beneath that introverted exterior, it may be time to see a childhood psychologist for counseling and in extreme cases, anti-anxiety medication.

Here are some telltale signs that your child may need professional help, according to Dr Fisher:

  • MAJOR MELTDOWNS: A temper tantrum here or there is okay, but excessive anger or sadness when adapting to new situations (especially after the age of seven) may be a symptom of extreme separation anxiety. Also, look for signs of sweating or heavy breathing when your child senses he's exiting his comfort zone.
  • ALWAYS ALONE: Sure, it's great if your kid's got a strong sense of independence. But constantly choosing to stay home instead of joining kids outside or opting to play video games alone instead of having friends over may be signs of a deeper problem.
  • REGRESSIVE BEHAVIORS: If your child is over the age of six and starts displaying babyish behaviors (sucking his thumb or fingers; baby talk) around strangers, he may be stuck in a developmental stage. Counseling could help him progress.

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