Parents want to see their children grow up to be happy, resilient and confident, but sometimes it is not as easy as it seems and that's ok. Just like learning to walk and talk, children develop social skills in their own time and through their own experiences. Growing children need nurturing and to be given positive feedback to develop confidence. Children who are shy can become stuck observing rather than being involved and often become too attached to their parents, which can lead to low self-esteem and social isolation. Being super confident and resilient in any social setting does not happen magically overnight. It takes time, encouragement and practice to be able to build confidence in coping with new environments.
The past few years of covid and social distancing challenges have meant that many young children have been restricted to spending time with only their parents or in very small social circles. Throwing children back into large family or social gatherings after a long time without these experiences can cause them to retreat and be shy, particularly around unfamiliar faces. They are just lacking in recent social experience and these long-awaited gatherings are often a time that relatives want to play and cuddle with the children and they are just not used to that level of attention.
Being shy is just a unique quality and each child has their own personality traits that make them who they are. There is nothing wrong with being shy, it's a trait that can be positive and is different to social anxiety. After all, children see the world through their own eyes and social situations from their view point. Regardless of the view you may have of the situation, the child might still feel overwhelmed and revert to being hesitant. Shyness is all about how we feel and how it affects our behaviour in certain situations, such as when we’re around new people or making mistakes. How we support children through these overwhelming moments is critical to how they will move forward as well as how they view themselves.
Being shy is just a different way of interacting in a social setting. Shy children can be seen as being curious and observing the new setting they find themselves in. It is not necessary to change behaviours in shy children, but rather encourage skills development. While children might be shy, it is also an important life skill to feel uncomfortable moments, or experience moments of being overwhelmed in order to develop coping skills. These moments help children learn how to regulate emotions and develop problem solving strategies when they are experiencing something out of the ordinary. Life can’t be lived covered in cotton wool, so small steps in the uncomfortable just adds to general social learning skills.
Here are some ideas that you might like to consider when supporting your child:
1. Avoid labelling them as shy or overwhelmed, especially in front of them
If children consistently hear labels in a particular way they will start to have a perception of how they are seen or may attach negative associations to their behaviours and personality. Instead of saying ‘They're shy… or they are overwhelmed” try “They’re just getting used to their surroundings and taking it all in”. Kids are allowed to feel what they want in any given situation, so you don’t need to make excuses for them in front of relatives that they see once a year.
2. Help make connections prior to the social occasions
Help support them prior to a big family occasion by discussing photos of past events, explaining who will be at the party and talking about what games they might play. Helping to build an understanding of the occasion could help to ease those initial nerves and shyness.
3. Connect to the interest and strengths of your child
Now that things are relatively ‘normal’, getting your child involved in small group activities in areas of interest to them will also help to build social confidence in a setting outside of the home. A statement to them might be “I’ve noticed you are really enjoying painting, would you like to do a holiday art class?”. Talking to other adults about your child’s interest will also help to encourage simple conversations in family social gatherings. Finding opportunities to build social interactions in a comfortable way helps to build confidence. (Don’t forget MKM upcoming holiday workshops ;)
4. Model or role play social scenarios in a fun way
Model in a fun way how we say hello to new people, or maybe invent a special handshake that they can teach children and adults that they meet and interact with. Remember that every opportunity is a chance to learn and model from your own actions.
5. Encourage and support play
Try to encourage children to build social connections with other children without you. They might need more encouragement with adults, but that's ok too. Children should be able to interact with other children of their own age through familiar play. If you feel that there are still difficulties when interacting and playing with children of similar ages, it may be appropriate to seek further support through your GP or trusted professional.
Developing social skills is important at any age, supporting children to build confidence and resilience takes time. There are life skills that we all need to learn and being sociable is an important one. This will allow us to interact positively with others, build relationships and be able to communicate effectively. Parents and teachers play an important role in this development by helping children to try new experiences, whether it is at a larger family gathering or making new friends on the first day of school. Every little bit counts in working towards the magic of creating a happy, resilient and confident child.