Kindergartner's shyness worries mom

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  October 9, 2012 06:00 AM

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I have a 5 1/2 year old daughter who is very shy when put in new situations or meets new people. I know that this is very common behavior but there are times when I think her shyness harms her more than I'd like it to. She has a tendency not to talk at all in these situations (such as meeting her brand new kindergarten teacher), and even resorts to acting like a cat, which includes crawling around on all fours on the ground. She often squeaks in response to a question, rather than utter a simple statement like, "My name is ....". Once she warms up to the new person or group, she's fine and participates as required. Is there anything I can do to help her grow out of this shy phase sooner rather than later? Help boost her self-confidence, perhaps? Thank you!

From: Concerned Mom, SmallTown, NH

Dear Concerned Mom,

The less you show her that the cat-like behavior bothers you, the quicker she'll outgrow it. When it happens, ignore it as best you can -- not in a mean way, just truly not reacting to it. It's also in your favor that she's in kindergarten. At this age, kids are very aware of their peers and don't want to appear babyish in their eyes. I suspect she will notice and compare herself to her classmates and decide, all by herself, that getting down on the floor and pretending to be a cat is a good idea only when everyone else is playing cat, too.

Child development experts put shyness on a continuum where one extreme is social anxiety disorder -- kids who become sick with fear and need professional help -- and the other extreme is the child who isn't a social butterfly but has one or two best friends and is perfectly happy. "Slow-to-warm-up" kids are the ones in the middle. ( BTW, these experts advise never using the word, "shy." It's a label that can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.) Figure out where your child is. If you think she's at the disorder extreme, by all means get some professional help. If she's in the middle -- well, the middle is usually a perfectly fine place to be. In fact, within a month or two of starting a new activity, this slow-to-warm-up kid looks like any other child. If you aren't sure or don't trust your judgment, ask her teachers for their input.

To build up her self-confidence, there are a few things you don't want to do:
1. Don't tell her, "You're too shy!" It will make her more self-conscious and more hesitant.

2. Don't rescue her. When she doesn't want to do something you think she should be able to do (ask the librarian for help, speak up in a restaurant), talk before hand to help her develop coping strategies: "I know you don't usually like to tell the waitress what what you want. Do you want to practice before we go, so you can try it yourself this time?" Kids often find role-playing fun, BTW.

3. Don't push her. She doesn't want to ask the waitress even though she practiced? Stop with the "but you did perfectly at home!" Shrug it off: "OK. Maybe next time."

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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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