When I present my workshop, “When Socialization IS an Issue” at conferences, one of the more common questions I’m asked is how to help a child who has trouble interacting with others. Some of these children have difficulties with social skills secondary to a diagnosis such as autism spectrum or a learning disability. Others, however, may not have any diagnosis that would contribute to difficulties with social skills. Sometimes a child is just shy, and often the parent doesn’t know the reason why.
When a child is naturally reticent, it is easy to misunderstand him. Adults may perceive him as noncompliant because he does not answer questions or engage in verbal discourse with them. This child may be perceived as a loner who prefers solitary play. Other children may conclude that the shy child is not interested in playing with them – if they even notice the quiet child standing off to the side. If the child’s parents never struggled with the challenges that come with being shy, they tend to be puzzled and at a loss as to how to facilitate positive relationships for their child.
Try putting yourself in your child’s mind and observe her as she is in different settings. Does it seem like she is less likely to participate in a large group? Maybe she is more comfortable with just a few people. For some shy children, it is a challenge to relate even one-on-one with another child. Being in an unfamiliar setting can seem overwhelming to a child who is reluctant to interact. Many children are relaxed in their home environment and the shyness is not as apparent when they are with their parents, siblings, and others they know well and see on a regular basis. Children who are slower to mature may have difficulties relating to their same-age peers but do well with younger children. Where and with whom is your child most comfortable interacting?
If the shy child has extroverted parents, that also presents challenges. If this is the case, try talking to some of your more introverted friends on ways to help your child without overwhelming him. One thing that is doomed to fail is the attempt to make an introvert into an extravert. That will be exhausting for both parent and child. Consider the possibility that your child may not be lonely when he is alone, and he may not want or need a lot of friends. What is your child’s temperament? Many people are content to have deeper relationships with several people rather than casual friendships with many. This will be hard to understand if your motto is, “The more, the merrier!” Your shy child does not share your enthusiasm for social gatherings, although he might like the people involved just fine.
When social interactions do not come easily or naturally, a parent can help the shy child by creating opportunities for the child to interact without feeling uncomfortable or unduly pressured. I suggest having a play date at the shy child’s home. This is where he feels most comfortable, so the environment won’t be an issue.
I also suggest having just one child over at a time, at least initially. This allows the reticent child to get to know someone without being overwhelmed or overshadowed by other children. This social visit may include siblings, but ideally the shy child will have many practice opportunities to experience the rewards of friendship without a more outgoing sibling inadvertently drawing the guest’s attention away from the play date partner.
Keep the first few play dates short. I would keep it to an hour or two and see how the child is managing. It will help the shy child to know that there is a definite end to the time they will have a guest over. If they are having a great time together, you can always extend the amount of time as the relationship progresses. If things aren’t going smoothly, the child knows there is an end in sight.
Review basic manners that your family extends to guests in your home. This might include offering a drink or something to eat to the visiting child. You might need to remind your child that he should see what his friend wants to play with and not make all the decisions regarding activities. It never hurts to do a little role playing prior to the play date, so you can model how to show interest in another person by asking questions and listening to the answer. Have the shy child practice telling you about something they like and are interested in. By having a few topics to discuss, the shy child won’t need to come up with ideas on the spot during the play date.
Choose the play date carefully. Try to determine who your child has shown interest in, and keep in mind it might be someone slightly younger or older than your child. This need not be a concern, because your shy child will be gaining positive experiences by successfully interacting with another child regardless of age differences. Discuss possible activities, snacks, and how to be a good host or hostess prior to the visit. All of this preparation increases the likelihood of a successful social exchange.
See if you can talk to the other child’s parents and mention that you are hoping to help your shy child become more comfortable with social interactions. This parent can become an ally in helping your child, and it will help explain why the first several play dates need to be at your house. At some point, the children may wish to have a play date at the other house, and when that time comes the groundwork will be laid for a successful social time in a new setting.
Once your shy child has developed a good relationship with one child, try repeating the process with another child. In this way you will gradually enlarge your child’s circle of friends and help your son or daughter become more at ease as they interact with others. A successful and enjoyable friendship does wonders to help a child’s confidence. A confident child is more willing to try new things, including meeting and interacting with a variety of people. Your child may always have a tendency toward shyness, but with support and encouragement at home it need not be problematic or limiting.
Melinda Boring has been married to Scott for over 28 years and has three homeschooled children. Her 25 yr. old son and 23 yr. old daughter graduated from home school in 2006 and her 19 yr. old daughter graduated from home school in 2011. Two of her children and her husband have been diagnosed with AD/HD. The children also deal with auditory processing disorders and sensory processing challenges. The name “Boring” just doesn’t fit this family, and Melinda shares many humorous moments in her speaking and writing endeavors. Melinda is the author of Heads Up Helping and has been a contributing author to multiple publications. She is a workshop presenter with a passion for helping struggling learners and providing practical strategies, compassion, and understanding for those with special needs. Melinda is also a speech/language pathologist with over 28 years experience and the owner of Heads Up, a company with products for those who learn differently. You can find her blog at the Heads Up website, where she writes as “Heads Up Mom”.