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Parenting is challenging enough. For parents raising children who are reluctant to try new environments, it can be downright exhausting at times, especially if they are outgoing themselves.
New environments such as birthday parties, group activities and classes can be very intimidating to shy children, especially those under five who are still developing their language skills. Children may cling to their parents, cry and beg not to participate and go home, which can all make a parent uncomfortable and not want to attend anymore.
Zineb Truta, owner of Scarsdale’s Great Play, a franchised kids’ gym that helps build confidence and competence in sports and motor skills, offers the following advice for parents of shy children on getting them to enjoy new group activities:
- Choose your class time wisely: Pediatricians often tell parents that babies and toddlers should wake up from sleep happy. If they wake up crying and crabby, it can mean they did not get enough rest. If your child is still napping, select a class that works around his nap schedule when he is at his mental best. Tiredness frequently exacerbates shyness and can cause social anxiety.
- Prepare for new experiences: If you are going to a new place for the first time, look online for pictures and videos and share those with your child. This helps get kids acclimated to a new environment before ever setting foot in it.
- Allow your child to watch from the sidelines: The first time in a new environment can be emotionally draining for shy kids and their parents. “While parents may feel isolated and embarrassed if they have the only kid not participating in a class, we know there have been dozens before them,” said Zineb Truta. Stay for the entire class and come back the next time. “We very rarely see a child who didn’t warm up to our classes after attending one or two times even if they did not participate the first couple times.” If you are concerned, make sure to find a place that offers a free trial class.
- Never force participation: Be a source of comfort and calm for your child while he or she sits on the sidelines. Your child will feed off your energy.
- Look for peer leaders in the class: Young children feed off their peers. Ask the instructor to identify the peer leader in the class and make an introduction. Outgoing children are often thrilled to help another child feel more comfortable. It gives the outgoing children a sense of purpose and helps the shy child feel more comfortable.
- Sometimes leaving helps: Does your child’s school or daycare provider tell you how wonderful your son or daughter is? Do your babysitters say the same thing? Even if you don’t believe it, they are probably telling the truth! Oftentimes kids behave better when they don’t have a parental crutch to lean on.
- Find a place that is accommodating of your child’s need for structure. Shy children have a very hard time jumping into unstructured, chaotic, “wild” games as their introduction to a class. The outgoing child may thrive on this and think it’s great fun to jump right into the scrum, but the reluctant child can feel completely out of place. You’ll notice them standing in the corner or alone with head down, wishing to disappear! Free play time is an important part of any class – to get kids acclimated and to break up activities. But look for a place that has structured options too during free play for children who need it. You’ll know you’re in the right place if a coach is on the lookout for kids who feel out of place and invite them over to try a specially set up structured activity.
- Pay attention to leaders’ personalities: In youth activities, whether it’s classes, sports leagues or even school, the leader can make or break the experience. You can quickly tell if a coach has been trained in making kids comfortable. Look for telltale signs like whether they get down on the kids’ eye level to speak with them (rather than standing tall above them), whether they invite kids in to try an activity (rather than forcing participation in things the kids don’t like), and whether they know how to encourage kids with specific feedback (“Sam, nice job keeping your eye on the ball and following through to the target, that’s why you had a great hit!”) instead of general feedback (“attaboy kid”). Every kid is different. Some kids like authoritative leaders to provide them with structure. Others like silly, fun, compassionate leaders. Even male or female can make a difference. If your child didn’t enjoy a class for one reason or another, try another instructor. One instructor might be a great fit for one kid but not for another.
Kelley Bartels, a Great Play customer, is the mother of a shy child. Her 4-year-old son, Cash has selective mutism, a condition in which a child who can speak stops speaking, usually in social settings. Bartels advice to other parents of shy children is to keep trying.
“Great Play has worked wonders for Cash. At his preschool, his teachers have not heard him utter one word in two years. Yet, after only a couple of weeks of classes at Great Play he was singing during class,” says Bartels.
“It’s my job as his mother to keep putting him in social situations to acclimate him to a school environment. And if I can offer any advice to other parents of shy children, it’s to have patience and keep introducing your child to new experiences. Cash is proof that even the shyest of kids can find activities that help them come out of their shells.”