Ask my son about his day at school and you will get a play-by-play of his two recess periods. You’ll find out what they played, who said something funny, who scored a goal (or a run or something else) and who got frustrated with the game. If anyone cheated, you’ll hear all about it.
In first grade, playing with his friends is everything. Sure, he’s a math enthusiast and loves science and history, but recess is by far his favorite part of the day. When the day is done, however, so is he. No need for play dates. No filling the spaces with extra curricular activities. No busy social calendar. Recess has him covered.
I get a lot of questions from parents concerned about their “quiet” or “shy” kids. They worry that their kids struggle to make friends. They wonder if their kids are lonely or sad at school. They don’t know how to help them “fit in” with the other kids.
This is a natural worry among parents of kids with all kinds of personalities. Somewhere deep down in the recesses of our emotional memory banks, we all remember that time when we didn’t fit in or felt left out. We don’t want our children to experience that kind of hurt. We want to fix it before it happens.
Here’s the thing: More often than not, the so-called “shy” and “quiet” kids in question are actually perfectly content. It’s their loud, talkative and highly social parents who worry.
Here’s the other thing: There is a difference between a child who struggles with mild social anxiety or has difficulty engaging with peers and introverted children.
One more thing: Try to avoid the labels. “Shy” can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Identify formation starts early and takes time. A kid who is always called “shy” will eventually act the part.
Introverted children enjoy downtime. They like to be alone and draw energy from doing various quiet activities on their own. For introverted kids, school is a real energy zapper. They need after school time and weekends to recharge. They aren’t avoiding other kids, they’ve just had their fill.
As for the kids with mild social anxiety or the kids who tend to be quiet in groups, you can help them practice a few skills to make the process of connecting easier (and less anxiety producing).
Respect their preferences.
Not every kid wants to play every sport and join every group. Some kids genuinely prefer 1:1 play. I was that kid. I loved afternoons with my best friend but dreaded birthday parties and group play. I wasn’t anxious about fitting in, I just preferred a smaller environment.
Understanding and respecting your child’s preferences is crucial. Forcing your child to fit some mold won’t help your child connect with others. In fact, it will have the opposite effect. Instead of forcing your kid to attend every party or meet large groups of kids at the park, ask your child who she wants to play with and start there. Also? Step back and let the kids play. Quiet kids need time to develop relationships. Micromanaging the play date or planning big outings are counterproductive.
You can’t force your child to want to have play dates and make new friends. If you do, your child will likely feel anxious about the whole process of making friends.
Put your needs (and feelings about it) aside for the time being and provide support. Ask about friends here and there, but resist the urge to pepper your child with questions about the lunch table, recess and the latest activities the kids are doing.
Teach a few “meet and greet” skills.
When children end up on my couch for “difficulty making and maintaining friends”, I find that many of them need help with social interaction skills. They either steamroll conversations in and effort to be heard or they stare at their feet and wait for the moment to end.
Try these tips to help your kids meet new people:
- Notice the eyes: Instead of hissing, “look up” every time your child meets someone new, prepare your child in advance by teaching her to focus on the color of the person’s eyes. Zooming in on this detail can make the meeting feel more manageable.
- Loud and proud: Quiet kids tend to have quiet voices. Practice speaking in a hour voice at home by pretending to use a microphone to give a speech about Lego building. Instead of saying “speak up” when your child talks to others, get low and whisper, “loud and proud” as a reminder.
- Be curious: Sometimes kids worry about how they will answer questions when they meet new people. Teach your kids to be curious about others by asking questions to start a conversation. This decreases some of the anticipatory anxiety that can crop up in social situations.
Practice conversational skills at home.
Ever been stuck in a group at a party where one group member talks on and on and always finds a way to circle the conversation back to his own interests? Many adults lack basic conversational skills. Excessive chatter is simply a coverup.
Teach your child the art of sliding in and out of conversations. This is best done at the dinner (or breakfast) table. If your quiet one tends to watch without comment, stop and point out times to slide in with a comment or question and slide back out.
Practice ice breakers.
Sometimes the hardest part is finding something to say. I often encourage my kids to follow these two tips when meeting new kids:
- Find out one interesting thing about the other child. Your child can practice simple questions like “do you have a pet?”, “do you play a sport?” or “what’s your favorite thing to do after school?”
- Share one interesting thing. When the other child answers a question, your child should practice responding with his own interesting fact (“I have a dog, too!)
While these ice breakers might sound simple, many kids freeze up in large groups or new social situations. Practicing at home helps.
Friends make school more fun and actually help kids feel more confident in the classroom. But social interaction skills don’t come naturally to every child. Some kids need a little extra help at home!
For more great tips on helping kids connect with others, pick up a copy of THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK!