Parents can feel blindsided, once their children enroll in kindergarten or elementary school, to hear from educators that their child is not interacting with others and isolating themselves. This can come as a big surprise to the parents, who might not have had enough chances to observe their child with others.
Learning that their child is unable to adapt to new environments and people and cannot interact freely with others is understandably worrisome for parents. Children who build barricades and isolate themselves tend to be left out of activities with their peers and are unable to participate in group activities, which can make them the target of bullying and lead to depression. To prevent the problem from escalating, it is important for shy children struggling with social interaction to get help so they can overcome their fear and improve their lacking social skills.
Causes of children’s struggles with social interaction
If your child’s personality tends toward introverted and timid, he or she will prefer a smaller group of friends and have a tendency to avoid speaking in public. While having an introverted personality does not necessarily pose a problem, extreme shyness can easily be aggravated when combined with environmental factors such as harsh criticism, limited exposure to new groups of people, and underlying anxiety disorders, which can in turn disrupt your child’s daily life.
2. Traumatic humiliation
Suppose your child has experienced a traumatic incident that embarrassed him or her in public. In that case, it may have left them with a long-lasting phobia which can hinder normal social functions in a similar environmental setting. The stress they experience can leave them feeling powerless and fearful enough to set off physical symptoms like heart palpitations, sweating and nausea. As a result, your child may actively avoid situations that might trigger the same feelings of shame and humiliation.
3. Harsh judgement
If your child is exposed to frequent harsh disapproval, it can lead to fear of criticism and prevent them from speaking up in public or group settings. It is important for your child to not feel fundamentally flawed from constant exposure to harsh evaluations of their abilities and behaviour. This can not only damage their confidence but also aggravate insecurities about themselves, which can make them disproportionately fearful of others’ eyes on them and prevent them from public speaking and social engagement.
4. Limited exposure to new or larger groups of people
When your child has limited exposure to larger groups of people or strangers, it can hinder social development and limit their ability to interact with others. Exposing your child to new people and chances to naturally interact with bigger groups is crucial to a child’s development.
5. Separation anxiety
Children can display signs of separation anxiety when they are unable to adapt to situations that require them to be separate from attached people, usually parents or close caregivers. It is common among children under age 3, but in some cases it can last until after age 10. Although separation anxiety usually fades as children develop, some children display the symptoms much longer than others, which can cause difficulties in their daily lives.
6. Social anxiety
Children with social anxiety are not the same as timid children. If your child has social anxiety he or she will show adverse reactions toward new experiences and new challenges. They have a disproportionate fear of others observing them when they speak or talk, which can complicate daily activities. According to the Mayo Clinic website, someone with social anxiety has an overactive amygdala which may trigger a heightened fear response, leading to increased anxiety in social situations.
7. Selective mutism
Some children can have normal conversations at home with family members, but are persistently unable to talk when faced with strangers or unfamiliar groups of people. According to research, less than 1% of North American children are diagnosed with selective mutism. Children with selective mutism can show dramatic differences in their communication depending on who they are interacting with, not by choice, but literally out of an inability to talk.
Do not expect your child to know what to say and how to react to others in certain situations.– Balance in wonderland –
How to help your child overcome a fear of social interaction
1. Show them what to say and how to say it
Do not expect your child to know what to say and how to react to others in certain situations. Since they do not have as much experience as you do in interacting with others, it is natural that they might struggle to find the proper words. Help them by giving examples of what to say and how to say it, so your child can practice appropriate responses to social situations. By teaching and modelling for your child, you can help them build solid ideas that will enable them to respond, thus minimizing uncomfortable situations.
2. Encourage public speaking and activities
Provide opportunities for your child to converse with new groups of people, but never force the child to talk. When your child tries to ask you to speak on their behalf, do not comply. Instead, praise and encourage them if they show even the smallest amount of improvement—such as progressing from no interaction at all to non-verbal communication like waving a hand or handing a toy to someone who asks for it.
3. Develop independence and positivity
Encourage your child to experience new achievements by doing new things independently. Even a simple and easy task, as long as it is something your child can do themselves, is worth encouraging him or her to do from beginning to end, in order to experience fulfillment.
Another important tactic is to help them say positive things about themselves like, “I’m good at drawing”, “I have a good voice”, or “I’m good at playing with my brothers”. By expressing their strengths and finding positive things about themselves, they can grow confidence that will help them open themselves more to others.
It is especially crucial to prepare your child for what to expect when they speak in front of a group of people such as for a class presentation. Discuss strategies for when someone laughs or starts to talk over them. This will enable your child to ignore potential distractions or endure interruptions without feeling discouraged or hurt, or taking it too personally.
4. Examine their own talk and gestures on video or in front of a mirror
Encouraging your child to monitor his or her own expressions and mannerisms as they practice talking to others can lower their anxiety and get them used to speaking more comfortably. Let your child get used to watching his or her own facial expressions while roleplaying scenarios of talking to new groups of people. This can be through video, in front of a mirror, or even both at once.
5. Never scold, but praise often
When your child shows even the slightest improvement, praise his or her efforts and tell them how happy they’ve made others by interacting with them. Never scold your child about his or her difficulty in communicating with new people, since it can aggravate the problem. Also refrain from the urge to nudge them by saying things like, “say Hello” or “go ask him to play with you”.
6. Work on their shortcomings and don’t give in to the label
Never let your child accept the label of “shy child” under any circumstances. Tell him or her honestly that being unable to comfortably interact with others is a limitation, but that you will help them overcome it. Keep reminding them that by doing that, they stand to gain so many benefits—such as making more friends and having people to share their thoughts with.
It is perfectly acceptable to seek professional help when your child does not show any signs of improvement and you have run out of solutions, or are simply overwhelmed. Professionals have many more tools at their disposal to approach your child’s challenges, as they have dealt with many children and have likely seen similar circumstances.
Your shy child’s struggles to interact with others and inability to speak confidently may be caused by a variety of issues—from timid personality, harsh judgement and humiliation, limited exposure to new or larger groups of people, social or separation anxiety, or selective mutism.
To help your child overcome their fear of public interaction, it is useful to model appropriate responses to certain situations, encourage them to speak in public by boosting their confidence through independent achievements, avoid labelling them as shy, and help monitor their progress by practicing with video or in front of a mirror. If your child does not show any improvement, seeking professional help can be another option to consider.
No matter what, keep encouraging your shy child to overcome his or her fear of interacting with others while boosting their confidence with praise and motivation.
You might also be interested in reading the articles below:
- My child is a little chatterbox at home, but does not speak around strangers: Selective Mutism
- Speech activities for selective mutism at home, with communication practice cards to help your child talk
- 5 reasons why your child can’t engage with others