Question: How can I encourage my bashful preschooler to open up and break out of his shell? He's soft-spoken, reserved, and afraid of walking into a room full of people. He used to cry when we'd take him to the church nursery, and now he resists being left at his daycare centre. Is there something we can do to make it easier for him to interact with others?


Under certain circumstances, shyness can be a formidable social handicap for kids. It may also become a source of tremendous frustration for parents. Every individual is different, and there are some situations in which a child's bashful behaviour may turn into a cause for serious concern. But most of the time it's simply a question of temperament. In such cases, there's no need to think of it or treat it as an insurmountable problem.

Understand your child

It's important to realize that some kids are born with a genetic predisposition to be less outgoing than others. Shy children tend to be cautious, anxious and reticent about tackling things that are new or unfamiliar. Parents need to be careful not to reinforce this avoidant behaviour, either by giving in to their child's fears or by criticizing his shyness and harming his self-esteem. Raising bashful boys and girls is a delicate art that requires discernment, sensitivity and balance. If you have a more assertive, confident personality than your son, it may be particularly difficult for you to understand him. In that case, your first assignment is to get inside his head and try to see the world through his eyes.

Show unconditional love

One of the best ways to help a shy child is to show him that you love him unconditionally. Let him know that he doesn't have to perform in certain ways to be accepted by you. At those moments when he seems paralyzed by his bashfulness, respond with encouragement – a disapproving comment or look will only make him feel even more self-conscious. At the same time, resist the temptation to make life easier for him by shielding him from new people or situations. Coddling and reinforcing self-defeating behaviour will only create additional problems in the future.

Establish clear expectations

As for the situation you're facing at the daycare centre, we suggest that you make up your mind to establish firm rules and set definite limits. Express your expectations clearly and stick to your guns even when your son cries or throws a tantrum. Your goal should be to take him into the daycare centre, say goodbye and leave. You may want to enlist the help of the nursery worker or daycare supervisor to make the transition easier. Your child isn't going to like this plan, and chances are that he will raise a huge fuss. As a matter of fact, things will probably get worse before they get better. If this happens, don't give in to your son's protests. If you do, you'll be rewarding him for acting out, and he'll only ramp up his negative behaviour the next time.

There is always a chance that your child's problems may be serious enough to warrant professional help. Some kids – like some adults – have a condition known as "social phobia." Fortunately, this problem can be effectively treated with therapy.

© 2010 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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