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How to help a quiet kid find her voice (for starters, quit calling her shy)

“Grace is such a cute girl; too bad she’s so shy.”

“What’s the matter, Bobby, are you too shy to talk?”

“How are you going to make Sarah get over her shyness?”

You know what? I can’t stand the word shy. It’s a negative label, and so unfair. What’s worse, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when the “shy” child hears it so often that she adopts it as her identity. This is a label we give to kids who are quiet or more introverted, who may be uncomfortable in social situations or who may be simply deeper thinkers.

The first thing I’d like parents to know is that when a child is quiet, that’s a personality trait, not a deficit or a fault. Parents need to respect and honor their children’s temperaments, help them learn to channel their feelings and teach them to navigate the world around them. So I offer these five tips for helping a quiet child manage social situations in a way that’s comfortable for them, while responding appropriately to people and situations.

1. Begin by appreciating and accepting the uniqueness of your child, and being responsive to his or her needs

Extroverted children are outgoing and get energy from being around others; this describes me to a tee, which may be why my parents sent me to sleepaway camp at age 8! But introverted children recharge their energy by having quiet time alone. The best thing you can do is to allow them that time. Validate his feelings. Nurture her. Listen empathetically and say, “I understand that.” You always want to be sensitive and understanding; never make your child feel there’s something wrong with him.

2. Teach them “magic tricks” that will help them feel comfortable in social situations

While you understand your child’s introverted nature, you also know they’re going to have to function in the outside world, and that requires socially appropriate behavior. Meeting new people is challenging; they ask questions that quiet children don’t want to answer! As much as you may be tempted, don’t rush to answer for your child just because you want to fill the silence. This robs him of his competence.

Instead, become the coach: Teach her how to introduce herself to a new person by shaking hands and making eye contact. This may be very uncomfortable for an introverted child, so teach him a “magic trick”: Look at the color of the other person’s eyes. This gives the child something to focus on while helping him make eye contact. Here’s another trick: Explain that the person she’s meeting may be uncomfortable on the inside, too, and that offering a smile can help that person feel comfortable.

Parents often worry that their “shy” child won’t make friends. Of course they will! And there are tricks to help that process along, too. If you’re setting up a playdate, make sure the other child has a similar temperament so that your child won’t be overwhelmed. When it comes to birthday parties or other social situations, impulsive kids will just go full steam ahead without noticing the dynamics of the group. But your introvert will be more comfortable if he can get the lay of the land first; teach him to wait a moment to observe the scene: Is someone standing alone that he can talk to? Teach him to ask the other kids questions, to be interested in their answers, to look them in the eye (remember the eye color trick!).

And remember: It’s not how many friends you have, it’s the quality of the relationship. If your child has one or two good friends, that’s all she needs. Those friends will be loyal to each other, and often those friendships are much deeper.

3. Be encouraging and supportive every time your child tries to join in

They’ll take baby steps, so praise every effort. Read books and stories about being shy, not joining in, being left out (your bookseller can make recommendations); this tells them they’re not alone. Let them know that a lot of grown-ups feel that way, and add your own stories. I’d avoid using the word “shy;” instead, talk about a time you felt left out on the playground, or when you didn’t feel comfortable joining a group.

4. Teach your child the vocabulary for his emotions, along with socially acceptable ways to express feelings

Being able to understand and label emotions is a building block of emotional intelligence, or EQ, and EQ will be crucial to helping her succeed academically, socially and emotionally. Let your child know that every feeling is OK, but that you have to express them in appropriate ways. A lot of kids who are labeled shy are really afraid. Talk about those feelings, and let him color his feelings on paper or listen to music or read a story to get feelings out.

5. Never push your child to “perform” before they’re ready

Whether it’s a piano recital or a large social setting, she needs to start slowly and do it when she feels comfortable. Validate how he feels. Don’t be a pushy parent. Our role is to gently encourage, to supervise at a distance, so we’re not hovering around, waiting for them to do the right thing.

Extroverted children are easy to engage with because they’re like an open book: an open audiobook! Quiet children get labeled “shy” or “aloof” or even “stuck up,” simply because they keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves. It takes love, understanding, empathy… and a few magic tricks… to help these children become comfortable enough to share what’s going on inside. And you’ll discover what loving, thoughtful, multifaceted kids they really are!

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