How to Handle a Shy Child
3 takes on how to encourage your shy child
Your 2- to 4-year-old child is timid around new people or circumstances and too shy to join other children in play. What should you do? We called in a trio of experts—a psychologist, a preschool teacher, and a grandmother.
Jerome Kagan, professor emeritus of psychology at Harvard University and co-author of The Long Shadow of Temperament:
“Ask yourself, ‘Is my child’s shyness so extreme that his or her happiness is being compromised?’ If that’s the case, try inviting over a child who is not too dominant. When your child gets used to that playmate, invite two children over. It’s the same thing you would do if you were afraid of the ocean. First you put your toe in, then your foot, and so on. It’s the elimination of an initial fear response—and it works.
“I’ve been studying shyness for 30 years, and I’ve found that fewer than 15 percent of children who are excessively shy grow up to have social anxiety. Nine times out of 10, there’s no need to worry.”
Dee Costigan, teacher, Cloverdale Cooperative Nursery School, Florence, Massachusetts:
“I don’t think a shy child automatically means an unhappy child. A watchful child may be very comfortable taking in his surroundings and absorbing information. If I see a child looking like he’d like to play but is very shy, I might say, ‘It looks like you’re really interested in that game.’ If he says no, maybe he just wants to watch. If he says yes, I might take him by the hand and walk over with him. If it’s a child who is not going to initiate the conversation, I use the words and show him how. I say, ‘This looks like fun! I’d really like to play this.’ I was a shy child, so I try to remember how I wish someone had approached me when I was their age.”
JoAnne Thompson, grandmother of five, Indian Wells, California:
“Two of our five grandchildren were very shy when they started preschool. It took about a year for one granddaughter, who was 3, to feel comfortable enough to interact. Her mother, my daughter, is quite outgoing, and she had a difficult time trying to understand it at first. She thought, ‘Oh, something must be wrong.’ I would tell her, ‘Just let your child know she’s accepted as she is, and don’t make a big deal out of it.’ Children need time to get used to their surroundings. This granddaughter is now 9, and she’s not shy anymore. She’s still cautious—that’s just part of who she is. But being shy is not such a negative in my mind, especially at the age of 2, 3, or 4.”
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