Help your shy child become more sociable

The earlier your child is placed in social settings, the easier they will adjust. Here's how to help your shy child navigate pre-school.

Are you concerned that social distancing and the lockdown hasn’t given your child a chance to learn how to become a social butterfly? This could be even more concerning if your child has recently started pre-school and is finding the transition difficult. We chat with Educational Psychologist, Kristen Strahlendorf from the Family Tree Therapy Center for advice for parents to prepare and accustom your shy child for pre-school.

Is my child shy?

Identifying whether or not your child is more outgoing vs shy is the first step in readying them for pre-school.

5 Signs your child could be shy

A very shy child might show a combination of the following behaviours when in an unfamiliar place or situation:

  1. Rarely speaks voluntarily
  2. Doesn’t respond when an adult or peer asks them a question
  3. Watches other children play, but doesn’t join in
  4. Seems tense, distracted, or worried
  5. Refuses to enter a new place without a parent.

Help your child develop confidence

As your child moves into the pre-school years, your toddler may still remain attached and clingy, refusing to join group activities, and may often sob and weep to gain your attention. This is where parents need to play an active role in trying to understand what their timid child may feel and how to assist them in developing their confidence in coming out of their shell or ‘safe place’. The best response for parents is patience, when identifying areas of shyness and separation anxiety, which are all age-appropriate. “A shy child needs the reassurance that you will always be there for them. This is achieved through actions that show a loving, affectionate, and supportive home environment throughout their childhood”, says Strahlendorf.

The only child

Through socialising your child, you slowly build their independence while accustoming them towards sharing attention and interacting with others. An only child may find this a little more difficult, as they do not have siblings to learn social behaviour from. In this case, parents should arrange playdates and form playgroups, that will place their children in social settings, requiring them to learn social cues, body language, and social communication. Given COVID-19, smaller more intimate groups in which parents allow their children to play in open areas while promoting sanitising protocols is needed. “The earlier your child is placed in social settings, the more time they will have to learn and adjust”, she says. Some parents may consider this when their child is 3-years-old, enrolling them in playschool or preschool, even if it’s only for a few hours a week. When starting pre-school, parents should accompany their child on a classroom tour, allowing them to settle in.

Golden nugget: If your child finds it difficult to separate with much fuss, separation anxiety may be an underlying cause. This is common among babies, toddlers, and pre-schoolers, and doesn’t mean your child will be shy or have low self-esteem in the future.

How to help your shy child

  • Start by using short periods of distance. This aids in practicing short separation periods from your child. Gradually spend more time apart after they acclimatise to new people and situations.
  • Arranging one-on-one time with a friend will help your child build confidence and make friendships.
  • Manners and age-appropriate life-skills are essential in establishing boundaries while letting your toddler understand cause-and-effect.
  • Parents should use modelling to show their toddler what socially acceptable behaviour looks like. This is where you need to act as a role model through good manners and social grace. This will be demonstrating to your little ones how one should behave in public and private situations. Forcing your child to greet, wave or hug may cause them to regress and curl up into their comfort zone especially if your shy child is little.
  • Don’t leave without saying goodbye. In creating a goodbye ritual your child will comprehend that you are not leaving them but will come back later. Try not to sneak away when you leave your child at school as this will enhance separation anxiety, as your child cannot decipher with certainty that you will return.
  • In the beginning, arrive a little early at pickup time so that he doesn’t get anxious looking around for you. If this persists, play therapy by an Educational Psychologist may be needed in avoiding emotional regression from severe separation anxiety.

A word on COVID-19 in 2021

Additional concerns around a shy child may point towards the aftereffect of the global pandemic that is still lingering, placing children on a back foot when developing their social skills. “This places parents in a precarious position in deciding what would be the best decision for their children when interacting in a social setting or attending playschool,” says Strahlendorf. For pre-schoolers learning about hygiene protocols while social distancing will be very difficult for them to adhere to, as at this age, learning through touch and sensory integration is key. Strahlendorf emphasises the creation of habits that promote social interaction such as waving goodbye to a friend, smiling, and pointing. This will allow your child to express some social body language while adhering to social distancing through outdoor activities. “Promote weekend playdates in small groups of 1 or 2 so that your child still remains in touch with social skills development,” she says. “Parents may overreact when it comes to COVID-19. COVID-19 needs to become a way of life where parents remain vigilant while remembering that social development, habits, and routine are all established at a young age”, says Strahlendorf.  

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