Help a shy four year old who is missing out.
June 2, 2012 1:22 PM   Subscribe

How to help my four-year-old better cope with his extreme shyness, so he doesn't keep missing out on things he wants to do?

My four year old son has been shy since babyhood. We've always told him its OK to be shy, and when he is reluctant to do something we give him extra time to warm up, and remind him that he usually feels much more comfortable after some time has passed. Like many shy folks, he actually loves being the center of attention among familiar people. I've always considered it part of his temperment and haven't been too concerned.

But, for the first time, he's started to articulate that he is feeling sad to be shy, because he is missing out on things he really wants to do. To give a sense of the shyness level: For instance, he never does show and tell, even when he's built something he's proud of and clearly wants his friends to see. He opts out of carnival rides once it's clear that the unknown operator will have to belt him into the car. He is clearly the shyest kid in his class of 20, by a significant margin. He sometimes even feels shy walking in to see people that he's known forever and that we see on a weekly basis. On the other hand, once he's in the swing of things, he will generally speak up and participate as long as he's not put on the spot.

Since he's expressing that it's bothering him, I want to find gentle ways to help him feel less overwhelmed by his shyness, so he can do the things he wants to. As an extremely not-shy person, I have no insight into this. Hubby is a shy-kid turned quiet-but-sociable adult, but is stumped as well. Internet/doctor advice seems geared to much older kids, or uselessly vague. I value any suggestions!
posted by Ausamor to Human Relations (14 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

I asked this earlier this year about my anxious (and shy) preschooler. Maybe it helps.

I think that seeing a family therapist might be a good idea to work out Little Ausamor's specific stuff.
posted by k8t at 1:45 PM on June 2, 2012

Are you able to do rehearsals/role plays with him so that he's exposed to things like show and tell in a safe environment before doing it for real? Have him do it once with you and your partner, then once with other family and then with his friends or in class.

Or with the carnival rides, say in advance, okay - so when you go on this ride, this will happen and then this will happen and then this will happen - are you okay with that? Watch the other kids who are going on the rides and talk him through what process they're going through.

It sounds like a lot of the shyness is more about unfamiliarity, about what the process is and whether he'll get it right or feel comfortable with it.

So maybe he just needs extra information before he's comfortable with things and a little bit of exposure to them in advance.
posted by mleigh at 2:34 PM on June 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My younger son was quite shy, perhaps not as painfully so as your boy, but it was definitely an issue. Here are some things that helped (he's now a self-confident 15, not gregarious or anything, but not afraid to speak to peers or even authority when he needs/wants to):

- soccer: this was a group of boys he didn't know well, but because it was week after week with the same kids, he got used to them, and had a chance to warm up (also, at that age, soccer was not terribly competitive or exclusionary, and it's a nice balance of individual effort and teamwork - not as much "being alone on stage" as something like baseball)

- karate (I think he was 6 when he started that): same kind of thing, where over time he could warm up to the teachers and kids, and also was building up skills that he could be proud of (and again, nice individual effort vs. teamwork balance - everyone moves together, but in their own ways). This was *not* one of those karate programs geared for "creating self-esteem" - it was a plain old martial arts studio interested in teaching actual martial arts skills to the kids. (He still studies there, too!)

And yes, the first few weeks/months of those activities were a challenge. But it paid off in the end.

The key elements seemed to be small groups, multiple weeks with same batch of kids, and learning some skills he could be proud of and confident in. I don't think this needs to be sports necessarily, that just fit with my boy - could be art or music or anything else he seems to like that has some social/group components available.

Also, try to stay 'not too concerned' if you can - on the outside, at least. My boy would get even more shy if I started to look like I was worried about him. Obviously, don't ignore his feelings, but your quietly positive outlook on his ability to maneuver through social situations may help him as well.
posted by agentmitten at 2:37 PM on June 2, 2012

I have no clue whether this can help at all but my children love this book in the Moomin Valley series called "Who will comfort Toffle", which is about shyness and overcoming it. It is beautifully written and it is a lovely story. My 5 and 3 year old boys really sympathise with the character and ask questions and it makes it very easy to talk about shyness and even coping strategies like: go there and say hello.
posted by buck:fuller at 3:26 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think you'll get some great suggestions in this thread but I just wanted to comment that you sound like a really great parent.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:27 PM on June 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

My (almost, 1 more week!) 3 year old is also quite shy. He's great with kids he knows and often with small groups of kids, but withdraws and talks to just us or plays by himself in bigger settings. I'll be watching this thread because he's going to preschool soon and we've already had some problems with the teachers there and his shyness (though we don't tend to call it that because it often has a stigma against it and currently it doesn't seem to bother our boy). We tend to do things similarly to you, though I tend to push him a bit more. If he's been talking about something before school that he wants to share with the teachers or the kids, we remind him once he gets there in the earshot of the teachers so they often come over and help prompt him to talk as well. Also, I tend to, once he's had some minutes to settle in a new setting, push him to the next step of participating (ie. singing along in a music class while sitting on my lap with me singing too, then once he's ok with that, getting him to stand in front of me, holding my hand and participating, then letting go of me, then getting a step away, etc), and each time we do it he seems to get further along. With one off things that we know he wants to do, we'll often offer to go over with him or do it with him (go on the ride with him, or go over with him to get buckled in) so he gets experiences of it being fun, hopefully prompting him to be more likely to do it next time.
posted by katers890 at 6:20 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Both my girls are shy, as am I. My older one expressed frustration with herself once and I reassured her by telling her that she will outgrow it, it will get better. The girls benefit from having each other to lean on. They make one another braver. They tend to choose very outgoing children as their friends and follow them into the think of it. Does your son have a child in his class that you could have play dates with? I would try that first.
Whenever I have a chance to push my daughters out of their safety zones, I do. The older one will barely talk in class but loves to run into a local restaurant, by herself (age 9) to pay for and pick up my take out. I let her do it. Both girls tent camp which is a confidence building activity. Something like that might help your son- encourage him to follow his interests.
A dog that he has to walk every day, by himself, would also help.
posted by myselfasme at 6:55 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Does he have any speech issues? For my son, one of the factors is that he had delayed speech (due to multiple language exposure and repeated ear infections we think) so he could only speak short sentences and he didn't articulate well. He still slips into a mumble if he's stressed. This made a bad feedback loop where other people couldn't understand him, he got embarassed/stressed and spoke less so he was even harder to understand. At home, he would chatter away but at school last year he didn't speak to any adults and only a few children.

He also has catastrophic thinking about social interactions. Answering a question in class would in his head become him standing there while the teacher screamed in his face and he got expelled. He's a bit of a worrier about minor things, but hugely about social interactions.

There are a lot of different types of shyness. It can just be an introverted personality it could be due to a phobia, a self-esteem issue, trauma-related - you need to figure out the Why so you can treat that, not just the symptoms.

What to do when you worry too much is a nice workbook for kids, although you would have to read it to him. I borrowed Helping Your Socially Vulnerable Child from the library and would consider it well worth buying. It was very practical and had lots of reassuring examples of similar children and strategies that helped.

We tried bringing him for art therapy, but he was so stressed out from the idea of engaging with a therapist that she suggested DIY - he got a bunch of art materials and every day I get him to draw something that worries him & something that helps him in his art journal. It's important not to deny or trivialize their fears, just to listen and reassure.

Things have gotten better. I practiced conversations with him for a while, we spoke to the school which allowed him to sit in the corner desk and to relay answers via his classmates or write them down, and we insisted on very short safe interactions - I would stand next to him while he ordered food, but he had to do the talking, and this year he can order food on his own.

I really wish I had realized he was afraid, not just personality shy, earlier and intervened earlier. It's great that you've noticed this and that he's able to talk about it. A CBT or art therapist might be really helpful if the DIY approaches don't work.
posted by viggorlijah at 6:59 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is you son sensitive about other things as well? We had this issue come up with our then 4-year-old last fall. Since discovering Elaine Aron's Highly Sensitive Child we understand our daughter better and just that fact seems to help. Aron's point is that a certain percentage of the population (15% maybe) are very sensitive to all stimuli and this is an evolutionary trait that benefits the group.

I don't know that this will actually help your son, but it may help you understand him better.
posted by pandabearjohnson at 12:18 AM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

therapy would help give him tools to cope with his own feelings. Perhaps you also have a family member or friend that is on the shy side and could be a role model.
posted by abirdinthehand at 11:06 AM on June 3, 2012

Thank you PandaBearJohnson. This book describes my guy to a T.
posted by k8t at 3:46 PM on June 3, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you so much to everyone for your ideas. PandaBearJohnson, and viggorlija, I will check out the books you both recommend. And, although it seems simple, I am so glad that myselfasme mentioned 'it will get better' - because of course that's most likely true (most of us adults are better at coping with overwhelming feelings than we were at age 5, thank goodness), so it's a true and encouraging thing to say, but one that I hadn't really thought about. And finally, thanks for the moomin book recommendation - I loved those as a kid and will be eager to see this one.

A Terrible Llama: Thank you - such a kind thing to say, at a time when it really makes a difference for me.
posted by Ausamor at 7:41 AM on June 4, 2012

I came into post my own question, but since this one is so recent, I'll just stick mine here in case anyone is reading ...

Ausamor, I'd love to get an update and hear how it's been going. My just-turned 4 y.o. daughter is really struggling with shyness and it breaks my heart ... b/c, of course, I am a very sensitive person who also struggled with shyness growing up.

I'm not gonna post another question with my details so soon after this one (or at last until I read the suggested material), but I would love to hear other suggestions.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:06 AM on December 10, 2012

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