Q. "I have a 7-year old son who is so shy he will hardly talk to anyone outside of our family. How can I help him?"
A. There are many children who are shy, which doesn't mean they won't learn to be comfortable with all kinds of people. You have to start from where the child is, and build one success at a time.
Look for things he likes to do and is good at. This will build self- confidence. He will also have more things to talk about. If you can find things for him to do, involving others, better still. Don't force him to do anything, but also don't make it easy for him to get out of it. A lot of time children will say they don't want to do something, even when they know inside that they'll have a great time.
Plan some social situations that will turn out to be learning experiences. Start slowly, and build on each one. One example might be, going to a movie with a friend. They can enjoy the experience together but don't have to engage in conversation. Movies are almost always fun.
Structure some activities for him that involve a few other people. Each time he gains a little confidence, plan another that is slightly more difficult. Plan these events knowing that he will do well, and then stop while it's still fun. This will make everyone want to do it again.
Build the social encounters around the activities he enjoys. If it is computer games, then have some friends around (one at first, then more) to play games with him, and talk about the games they are playing.
If you visit adults, you can start the ball rolling by talking about his latest computer game. Let him correct you, or maybe supply some details of a particular level. You might cue the adults ahead of time as to things to ask him.
If he doesn't respond, don't force him and don't make excuses for him. It is his decision to talk or not. He will have to live with the consequences. It will be easier on him if you try to draw him into conversations. You might ask him a specific, open-ended question about the game. It might be something like: "How did Mario get lost in the Mansion in the first place?" Don't put him on the spot by asking a yes or no question and don't talk about difficult things or subjects he doesn't like.
It will take time, but your son will find confidence in talking and being around people. Gradually, he'll take more chances and talk about things he isn't so sure of. If you help him to make talking fun, then he'll do it more. Conversely, if it's hard or embarrasses him, then he'll do it less.
Don't ever call him "shy". It will just reinforce his own belief about himself, and never change. It could even become an excuse as to why he can't do things. Focus on his strong qualities such as gentleness, kindness, and being polite.
It will take a while, but if you keep being positive with him, he will come out of his shell.
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Dr. Noel Swanson has a free newsletter on children's behavior problems and also frequently writes for Yes Parenting website.
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