Why do some children find it easy to converse with family friends, professionals, and strangers while others struggle to whisper ‘hello’?
Some researchers suggest we are born with different temperaments, while others suggest that early attachment and parenting style can impact one’s sociability. Regardless, speaking to grown-ups can be scary for little ones, and as a parent it can be frustrating when your child won’t talk to other adults … especially when they talk your ear off on a daily basis!
Many shy or anxious children are trapped in a cycle of avoidance — they feel shy or anxious around adults, so they avoid saying anything. This relieves their stress, but negatively reinforces avoiding the situation.
Often, well-meaning parents will accommodate their child’s shyness by speaking for them or allowing them to not talk. This also reinforces avoidance, accidentally rewarding the child’s behaviour and possibly teaching them that there is something to fear. This can be a tricky habit to escape, and it is often difficult to navigate the space between supporting your child and enabling (or forcing!) your child.
It may be helpful to consider the following: support is empowering. It moves your child forward developmentally. Support acknowledges difficulties, but does not eliminate them, and provides your child with the opportunity to learn and grow.
3 strategies to support your child in talking with adults
Practicing with you – a friendly, familiar adult that they know and love – is the first step to encouraging conversations with adults. Once greetings, farewells and common courtesies have become routine, you will have the chance to practice more complex interactions, such as asking questions, giving compliments and asking for help.
Asking for help is a vital skill for children to learn. If they don’t understand something in class, if they’re struggling with a personal problem, or if they are separated from you during an outing, your child should know who to turn to and how to seek assistance. Practice simple conversation scripts and responding to common questions that adults ask, giving gentle corrections and guidance.
Once they feel comfortable, encourage your child to practice in the real-world. Let your child order their own food in restaurant, pay for their own items at the shop, or get them to ask your friendly neighbour for a cup of sugar. They may respond to a daily bravery challenge – start with something easy and work up to a more difficult interaction. The more practice they have, the easier it will become!
When your child is asked a question by another adult, resist the urge to respond for them. Instead, wait a few moments before gently encouraging a response. When preparing to take on some of the challenging conversations discussed earlier, empathise with and encourage your child. Say something like “I know it will be tricky, but I think we can find a way to help you manage” or “It’s totally normal to be nervous when speaking to someone you don’t know … but I know you can do it!”
Rather than telling people your child is shy (which may suggest to your child that something is inherently wrong with them, or they cannot change), say something like “Stevie takes a little time to warm-up, he’ll chat when he’s ready”.
The old adage “Children should be seen and not heard” is long in the past. Children’s voices are important and we want to hear them! Empower your child by asking for their opinion about events at their school, in their town, or on the news, encouraging them to share their point of view. Modelling good conversational skills will also encourage your child and assist them to learn these skills.
No matter how small a step forward is, it’s an achievement – praise it! Lavish, over-the-top celebrations are not necessary – this may make the child feel uneasy and unwilling to repeat the skill again. Instead, quietly praise your child’s bravery and say specifically what you saw to encourage them to repeat this in the future.
For example, rather than saying “Great job being brave” say “I really like how you smiled and said hello to the lady at the checkout” or “I loved how you asked Uncle Sam how his dog was doing”.
When should I be concerned?
It is completely normal for children to be wary of adults, but if you’re concerned that your child’s shyness is excessive, if they’re exhibiting signs of anxiety in social situations, or if their shyness is impacting their performance at school or their relationships with their peers, you should consider consulting a psychologist.
Issues such as social anxiety, selective mutism and development disorders such as autism and Asperger’s can all benefit from early intervention and psychological therapy.
Language delays and hearing impairments should also be considered, so have a chat with your GP if you are concerned. Additionally, speak to your child’s teacher about any strategies they may have to help your child become more confident.