Q: My 11-year-old daughter is — and has always been — very introverted and shy. I know she would like to come out of her shell, but doesn't seem to know how to do it.
I've talked to her endlessly about things that she can try, but she seems to be too afraid to take chances and meet new people. Is there anything that can be done to help her, or is this the way she's going to be the rest of her life?
A: Most of the latest research is showing that introversion is somewhat based in genetics. But that doesn't mean you can't help your child come out of her shell. There are plenty of genetically-prone shy folks who successfully navigate through life and form intense, successful and meaningful relationships along the way.
Here are some suggestions for things you can do to help the situation with your child:
First, encourage her to socialize. One of the best ways to do this is by inviting one or two friends over to your home. It's less threatening for shy people when they are in an environment with which they are familiar and in which there are few competitive pressures. In this way, she is likely to learn social skills and confidence more easily than at school or in a large group of girls. If having three kids together doesn’t work for her (she tends to retreat and to let the other two play together), then suggest that she have just one buddy over at a time.
Second, do what you can to reinforce your child's good self-esteem. Avoid using negative criticism — kind, constructive criticism correctly given is okay — and try to compliment her as she takes risks and puts out effort to succeed in sports, social settings and academics. In this way she may begin to feel more at ease with herself and to trust her own capabilities. Encourage her to learn a new skill — dance, softball, computer — so that she feels special and successful in at least one area that catches her interest and that her peers can appreciate.
Third, try not to force your child to socialize in situations that obviously will be overwhelming to her. Sending a shy child to a large sleepover party or to summer camp is like throwing a non-swimmer into a pool. It can be very traumatic. Go slowly — let her adapt as you arrange for social situations to gradually increase in frequency, length, and social risk-taking (more kids, new kids, etc.).
Fourth, make sure the atmosphere at home is nurturing. You did not mention in your e-mail whether your daughter has siblings, but if she does, be vigilant to make sure they are not contributing to the problem by teasing or picking on her, especially for her timidity. These types of taunts can severely damage her self-esteem.
Finally, encourage your daughter to talk about why she feels so uncomfortable around other people. Shy kids tend to “awfulize,” assuming that the worst is going to happen (“No matter what I would say, the others would laugh at me!”). Have her verbalize to you what her fears are and deal with specific situations. “Is there some reason why you didn't play with the other kids today?” “Were you afraid that they would tease you?” Try to help her see that her fears may be unfounded, and that the kids probably would be happy to have her play with them. Let her know that you, perhaps, were shy yourself as a child and that you understand how it feels to be “invisible,” as if no one would care if you didn’t show up at summer camp or school. Describe ways that she can relax in social situations (deep breathing, or thinking distracting, perhaps funny thoughts), and how to give herself credit when she does initiate conversation.
You, as her parent, can do a lot to help, but then your daughter is going to have to lead the way. However, by setting the scene (having play dates at your home, taking the girls to the movies) and encouraging small social risks (calling a school friend on the phone), your daughter will most likely become less fearful of rejection.
Dr. Peters’ Bottom Line: Shy kids’ fears of rejection are often much worse than the reality. If they practice taking small social risks, their confidence will grow as they see that interactions with other children can be fulfilling and rewarding.
PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.