Helping Your Shy Tween: Q&A With Dr. Mary

shy child window girl
Flickr photo by apdk
Today, Dr. Mary is addressing ways parents can help their shy kids make friends.

Q:  My 9-year-old daughter is very shy when she's out of the house. She will soon be attending summer school (for academics) and there will be many kids there she doesn't know. I'm worried about her being able to interact with others, even though she says she wants to make a new friend. What are some things that I can do at home to help her?


A: I understand your concern and your desire to help your daughter. Many shy kids want to make friends but feel they won't be liked, become extremely frightened in new social situations that they can become physically ill, and experience tremendous worry when faced with meeting new people. Shy kids may choose to be alone at school because they feel uncomfortable around other children, and may have trouble responding when other children approach them. As a parent, seeing your child struggle socially when you know she truly desires relationships can elicit a range of feelings from frustration to sadness. Because of their actions, shy children may unknowingly be perceived by their peers as not interested in friendships, when in reality the opposite is true. The good news is that there are specific things you can do at home to teach your child how to engage with others:

Greetings. Greeting others may seem like a no brainer to us, but for shy kids, it can be torture. However, first impressions can go a long way, so initial encounters with others can be crucial. Teach your child that individual building blocks of a greeting: look the person in the eyes, smile, say "hello," and if you know the friend's name, use it. Saying someone's name when greeting them personalizes the interaction and therefore may be seen by the other person as more positive. Teach your child to observe how others greet one another at school. Have your child practice, or role-play, her greetings at home with you. Once she feels comfortable, have her identify others she can practice greeting. This could be a child at summer school (or even a teacher), a neighbor, or another adult. Your child also needs to learn that when others greet or attempt conversation with her, staying quiet or looking down or away sends a message that she isn't interested. Responding to greetings from others is another skill that can be practiced at home.

Compliments. Everyone loves to hear something positive about themselves, and children are no exception. Teach your daughter how to comment on others' appearances ("I really like the way you're wearing your hair"), behaviors/abilities ("That was a great goal," "You really know your math facts"), and/or possessions ("That's a pretty bracelet"). Again, you and your child can role-play at home before trying this out at school. Have your kid identify who she'd like to compliment and what she might say. Compliments come easier when they're genuine, so have her think about a peer about whom she really has noticed something positive. Teach your child that you have to show kids you like them, otherwise how will they know?

Common Interests. Many friendships are based on having common interests. What does your daughter like? Help her identify the elements that make her who she is. One expert suggests having her make (with your assistance) a Things I Like Collage, which is created from photographs, drawings, magazine pictures, etc., to depict her "favorites" (e.g., activities, food, animals, sports, music, TV shows, movies, etc.). You and other family members can create one as well. Point out the things you have in common, and the interests that are different for each of you. Teach your daughter the idea of common interests in relation to a child at school that she would like to befriend. Help her brainstorm about possible common interests they both may have, and if she's not sure, how could she learn more about the child's interests? Listening to and asking questions both show an interest in others.

Playing together. Kids develop friendships by playing and doing activities together. Things like going to a movie or going roller skating are activities that your daughter can do with one other child. Because they are pretty specific (unlike something like going to the park), the amount of stress your daughter may feel can potentially be reduced. Another activity that doesn't involve a lot of conversation is riding bikes. Initially, aim for shorter play dates that are structured and have a clear-cut beginning and end. While planning your outing, coach your daughter to question her friend to determine common interests in activities. Again, this may require some role-playing on your part. Another thing to teach your child is to observe what another child is doing and do the same thing. For example, if your daughter is on the playground and sees a girl she knows from class on the swings, your daughter could get on the swing next to the girl. The idea is not to outright mimic the other child, but to show them that she has the same interest. By doing, this, your child is in essence extending a compliment to her peer ("I like what you're doing and I want to do it too"). With your help, your daughter will learn that children like other children who like doing the same things.

Communicate. Given that your daughter is 9 years old, an important skill for her to learn is how to talk with her friends on the phone. Teach your daughter how to answer the phone in your home. Determine what she will say and how she will say it, and then practice. If necessary, write out a script until she feels comfortable doing it from memory. Once she can do this, talk about how she might call a friend. Have her decide who she will call and what she will say. Again, it may help to write out a script and role-play before making the call. Help your daughter brainstorm some possible situations. For example, what will she say if the friend's sister answers the phone? Parent? What about leaving a message if no one answers? Rehearse these situations and when she's ready, have her call her friend with a pre-planned, concrete question ("Would you like to go to the movies this weekend?" or "What chapter are we supposed to read tonight?"). Many children your daughter's age also use email as a method of communication. This can be a mixed bag. On the one hand, it may be less threatening to write notes than to talk on the phone, and being email savvy can be a plus among peers. However, it's not the same as real-life contact and should not be used as a crutch or a substitute for personal relationships.

With the right skills, and with a little help from you, your shy child can develop meaningful friendships and avoid a future of skipped or uncomfortable parties.

Dr. Mary Rosen is here each week to provide answers to your most pressing school issues. She's a school psychologist, licensed counselor, graduate school instructor, and parent.

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