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Seven ways to coax a shy child out of their shell

By Lisa Salmon

Being shy can be crippling for a child, leading to missed opportunities for them, and often frustration for their parents.

Some parents will try to push quiet and shy children into social situations in a bid to get them out of their shell, but such pressure is unlikely to work, and may instead make children feel even more self-conscious, say psychologists.

“Most people would identify a shy child as being quiet, inhibited and avoidant of getting involved in social activities,” says consultant clinical psychologist Dr Helen Rodwell.

She continues: “Pressuring a shy child to be less shy doesn’t tend to help, as it can just make a child feel even more conscious of themselves. Shyness isn’t only about a reluctance to get involved in social activities, but it’s also connected to the child’s belief that others will view them negatively.”

Such shyness is often seen by Anna Fiorentini, principal of the Anna Fiorentini Theatre & Film School in London, and she believes role playing and acting can give children the self-confidence they need to overcome any shyness.

“I’m so passionate about the benefits drama and role-playing can have in a child’s life,” she says. “I’ve seen the majority of our students come out of their shells within a matter of weeks thanks to the power of the performing arts and the freedom it gives children to express themselves, make mistakes and earn praise for learning and developing new skills.”

Here, Rodwell and Fiorentini give their tips and advice about shyness and how children can be encouraged to overcome it…

1. Accept your child for who they are

Rodwell stresses that shyness in itself won’t cause your child harm, and many children will develop more social confidence as they grow older. But in the meantime, parents shouldn’t put pressure on their children to be more confident, and should accept them for who they are.

“It’s much more helpful to remove judgement from your child. Try and foster an attitude of ‘it’s ok to be you’ and ‘it’s ok to take your time to get used to people or new places’,” she says. “Some children take longer to warm-up to new people, places and experiences.”

2. Use praise

Often we hand out general praise for a good effort or piece of art but rarely think about what it is we’re praising, Fiorentini points out. “Be specific and recognise the individual effort that’s gone in to something. Don’t overdo your praise, reserve it for when it really means something.”

3. They may grow out of it

Shyness is common in children and can be related to different stages of development, says Rodwell. “Very young children are typically wary and shy of unfamiliar people, and this wariness is usually seen as being a sign of a healthy attachment.”

As children grow older, she adds, they usually develop more security and become more familiar with different people and situations: “This can help to foster growing confidence.”

Children tend to look to their own parents and family for clues about how to behave with people and in new situations, she says. “This can mean a parent who’s shy or feels uncomfortable in new social situations may be more likely to have a shy child.

“But this isn’t the whole story, as children are influenced by all their experiences. So, your child can develop social confidence from a young age by spending time with others at playgroups and nurseries.”

4. Model self-confidence

To help your child overcome shyness, show them how it’s done, advises Fiorentini. “Be the role model they can copy and get tips from – you have more influence than you think over your child’s behaviour.”

5. Harness the power of play

Rodwell, co-author of Parenting with Theraplay (Jessica Kingsley Publications, £11.99), says parents can help children build an internal bank of social confidence by using play. “Don’t underestimate the power of play activities which involve you and your child playing to-and-fro activities together,” she says.

For example, blow a feather back and forth between the two of you, blow some soap bubbles and pop them together, or make up silly dances together.

“These deceptively simple games can help give your child the experience of fun and connection with you, and when they feel that, it helps them grow a strong foundation of self-confidence,” she explains. “If you help your child develop a clear knowing that they’re loved and valued, this can help protect them from having negative views about themselves when they’re with others.

“Children grow from the inside out, so as a parent you can provide your child with love, acceptance and connection, which will then provide them with a foundation for self – and social – confidence that they can take with them into the outside world.”

6. Encourage a wide range of interests

“Being the best at one thing is great, but having a wide range of interests and hobbies will help your child see they’re capable of lots more than they thought,” stresses Fiorentini.

“This might be sport, stage school or something quieter and more artistic – it’s having a go that counts.”

7. Promote resilience

Things don’t always go right for anyone, and children need to learn that, says Fiorentini. “Things will go wrong and they will fail but it’s how they deal with it that counts.

“When a child is very self-conscious they may overthink things and become very self-critical, which is why it’s so important they learn to embrace mistakes and imperfections and not feel they have to be faultless just to be accepted.

“Show your child how to bounce back and keep trying. Resilience is a skill that’ll come in useful throughout their life.”


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