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Do you have a shy or timid child? Parenting Coach Katie Malinski, LCSW, role plays with Kate Raidt on how to help a shy child.

Sometimes you’re ready for your child to venture forth into kid society but she has trouble making a move. She may be just naturally slow to warm up. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if in addition to being reserved your child is also unsure of herself, then she needs some help to become more confident. Reserved but confident people are respected. Shy and uncertain people are often overlooked.

Two steps will help you as the parent of a shy child.

First, provide your child with a scripted response he can use in the most common situations he will face. He can be guided to nod his head and say “Hi” or “Hello” when meeting other kids or adults. He can practice saying “My name is….” when asked. Low-key, supportive practice at home will help boost his confidence when he needs to respond to strangers.

Second, ease the way in social situations by introducing your child instead of making her wait for a cue. Say, “Hi, Mia. This is Clara. Would you like to play in the sandbox with us?”  Play with Clara and Mia in the sandbox, modeling ways to talk about the play and share toys. Withdraw your interaction when Mia and Clara start to play without you. As your child becomes more capable, help her to initiate her own introduction and invitation to play, but be ready to guide gently if she gets stuck.

If you know your toddler or preschooler is shy, start now to give him the tools to manage social interactions. Don’t wait until the first day of school.

In addition, be careful to not label your child. Labels have a way of sticking. So don’t make the excuse, “Toby is shy.” And don’t fret with your child in public or laugh at him in your own nervousness or scold him. All of this makes the problem stronger,  both in your mind and in the mind of your child.

Experts suggest that parents model outgoing behavior so kids can see how a person introduces himself to someone new, finds a place for himself in a group, and strikes up a conversation. So do a quick self-check of your own social behavior to ensure you’re comfortable demonstrating to your child what social confidence looks like.

Separation anxiety bothers us. We Americans love independence and self-reliance so our child’s clinginess seems almost un-American. We also worry about how our child will handle going to school. We might have already had difficulty with starting childcare or preschool – lots of tears and stomach aches. Finally we do feel embarrassed and annoyed. We feel inconvenienced by our child’s neediness and then we feel guilty that we feel inconvenienced. Our child is obviously uncomfortable. When will this dependent, clingy, timid behavior end?

It helps to keep in mind that separation anxiety is developmental. It’s a sign of progress! Separation anxiety usually appears first at about the time that babies learn to crawl and cruise. It’s as if they realize that if they can move away from you, you also could move away from them. The best course is to follow you around and wail. Two-year-olds are devoted to their plans for world domination and you are the first subject of their tyranny. Toddlers would love to tell you what to do and to control your movements. Finally, preschoolers are newly aware of danger and quite rightly believe that clinging to your thigh is the best way to stay safe. At each point, children’s desire to keep us close reflects their emerging abilities. This means that separation anxiety is normal.

Separation anxiety can have other causes too. Some children are just naturally slow-to-warm-up and need more time to adjust to new situations. Some children have experienced a traumatic separation – because of a parent’s absence or their own hospitalization – and are fearful of another disruption. And sometimes we even teach our children to be dependent. If we or the child’s older siblings treat the youngest like a baby long after his infant days are past, then we inadvertently support anxious clinging. Kids act the way they think we want them to act and they are quick to pick up on the signals that we’re afraid for their safety and anxiously want to keep them close.

Separation anxiety can take many forms. Of course the child who hides behind you and refuses to go to preschool can be said to have separation anxiety. But we can also include the child who won’t go to bed by herself. We can include the child who favors one parent over the other. Separation anxiety may be behind a child’s refusal to participate along with other kids, preferring to stand on the sidelines with you, and also behind a child’s insistence that a best friend or sibling go along to every event. So what can you do about these behaviors?

Here are seven general principles to keep in mind:1. Understand what can be changed and what can’t. If your child has always been slow-to-warm-up to new things, even as an infant and if you’ve come to the conclusion that this is just how your child is… then you can’t change that. Don’t frustrate yourself and drive your child crazy by trying to make him into a person he’s not.

2. Take your child’s age into consideration. Is it possible that this is “just a stage”? Are you concerned about behavior that started recently? See if things don’t settle out on their own in a couple weeks.

3. Avoid creating an expectation for anxiety. Do you unconsciously shield your child from a person who stops to talk? Do you automatically pull your child closer when she’s confronted by a new situation? Try to notice and counteract the way you signal your nervousness.

4. Focus on one behavior at a time. Maybe your child screams when you leave her at childcare and insists that only her dad can get her dressed and won’t sleep in her own bed and on and on and on. She’s limiting herself in so many ways and you’d like to wave a magic wand and have it all be better. It’s actually easier to tackle one issue at a time.

5. Be understanding and supportive without shaming or enabling. Understanding is saying, ”I know this is hard for you and…” Being supportive is saying, “I’ll be right here. When you get over there, wave at me and I’ll wave back.”  Avoiding shaming means you never say, “Don’t be a baby” or “Come on. Be a big boy.” Avoiding enabling means not saying, “That’s okay. I’ll say it for you.”

6. Provide frequent opportunities for practice. When your child finds speaking up scary it’s natural to want to protect him from that. But he needs more opportunities to talk, not fewer. Instead of sheltering your child, make sure he gets around and has plenty of casual interactions.

7. Notice when your own discomfort is the source of your annoyance. If you find yourself getting impatient with your child’s separation issues, take a moment to figure out why. Are you annoyed because you feel like your child is letting you down or embarrassing you? Remember to separate your own feelings from your child’s needs.

Try to keep separation anxiety in perspective. Your child needs your support in learning to step out confidently on his own.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson.  All rights reserved.