Watching our kids develop social skills can be really hard. We want so badly for them to thrive and feel confident and make friends, but at the end of the day it's not something we can do for them—they have to learn the hard lessons on their own.
Watching a child struggle with social anxiety can bring up memories of our own struggles over the years; what it felt like to join a new school and not know anyone, or the pain of being made fun of by a mean kid. So it's easy to worry when you notice your child acting shy.
Take a deep breath, though. While some children are naturally more hesitant socially than others, there are some things we can say to help them along.
Here are seven phrases to try when your child is feeling shy:
1. "Let's get there a little early to settle in."
Walking into a busy room full of noisy children can be overwhelming, especially for a child who is feeling shy. Try arriving at school or a party early so that your child is one of the first ones there. This will make it so much easier for them to find their place, whether it's playing with a friend or playing quietly on their own.
2. "Your friend Jane will be there."
Giving your child a heads up regarding who they can expect to see will help them mentally prepare. Of course, it's excellent if they have a friend they're comfortable with, but even if none of their close friends will be there, knowing what to expect is comforting.
If they won't know anyone, you can prepare them for that too. Warning them that there will be all new children at an event will help them not to panic when they realize there's no one there they know.
3. "You can stand with me until you're ready to go play."
Let your child stand with you until they're ready to go play, but try chatting with other adults and going about your business at the same time.
You don't need to ignore your child, of course, but being a little "boring" can help encourage them to go explore on their own or join the other children playing. If you make staying with you too fun or desirable, your child is a lot less likely to venture out on their own.
4. "I see you're not ready to go in yet. Would you like to hold my hand?"
It can be so tempting to tell our child, "Just go play!" when they're clinging to us at a park or birthday party. It's natural to want to see your child running and laughing with the other children, but it's essential to meet your child where they are. Telling them to "go play" can seem like a rejection of what they are feeling, of the legitimate fear they may be experiencing.
On the flip side, if you make too big of a deal of their anxiety, if you hold them and fuss over them, they may feel like they really aren't safe to go play, like there is something to be afraid of.
5. "You seem anxious."
Your choice of words is important here. You can acknowledge your child's feelings of anxiety without labeling them as "shy." If our child hears us repeatedly call them "shy," they will internalize this as part of their identity. It will become a part of them, of how they see themselves.
Instead of labeling your child, even if you think they're not listening, recognize the specific feelings they're experiencing. Just naming what they're feeling for them, without offering a solution, is often enough. If they see that you understand what they're feeling, and more importantly, that you accept it, they will overcome the anxiety more quickly, as they won't be facing the added pressure of pleasing you.
6. "What are some things you might like to talk about with your friends?"
To some children, chatting with friends comes naturally, but if this isn't the case for your child, help them learn conversational skills just as you help them to learn other social graces, like saying please and thank you.
Help your child think of three or four things they enjoy talking about, and brainstorm a few conversation starters they might use with other children. Similarly, practice what they might say if they want to invite another child to play. The more they practice with you, the more comfortable they will feel in real life situations with other kids.
7. "Which friend from school would you like to invite over?"
Often shy kids prefer close friendships with one or two children over more casual friendships with a bunch of other kids. You can help them develop these close relationships through organizing playdates with the children they seem more comfortable with.
If your child can't tell you who they might want to have over, ask their teacher if there's anyone they enjoy playing with or eating lunch with at school. Having even one or two strong friendships can go a long way toward helping a child feel more confident in social situations.
These simple phrases can help you guide your child in navigating through feelings of shyness. More important than the specific words you use, though, is your tone. It's important to keep the pressure off. The last thing you want to do is make your child feel ashamed of themselves for their feelings of anxiety.
You don't have to baby them, but you can be a calm support, an anchor in an otherwise scary social situation. Your child will sense your acceptance of their feelings and will feel more confident if you can remain calm, rather than trying to push them into social interactions before they're ready.