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Ask Dr. Sears: Little Miss Shy

Q. My 6-year-old daughter is extremely quiet around her classmates, and as a result, she doesn't really have any friends at school. Whenever she's around other kids, she won't talk to them. She's also afraid to stick up for herself  -- she lets other children boss her around. I've tried to encourage her to be assertive and not to let anyone bully her, but it doesn't seem to be helping. What else can I do?

A.
Through the years, I've counseled many children considered too introverted, and I can offer you some reassurance: Most of them turned out just fine. I've noticed that shy kids, while they may seem to make fewer friends, enjoy deeper and more meaningful relationships. Some children are simply deep thinkers and don't like to bother with small talk or shallow friendships. However, it's still important for your daughter to learn how to interact with her peers. Here are a few tips to help your little wallflower blossom:

Know if your child is generally happy. You want to make sure that her shyness is just a temporary behavioral quirk and not a signal of an underlying psychological problem, such as depression. Does your child seem generally happy and content with her life and with the friendships she has? With a temporary quirk or in a passing stage, the child is generally happy and successful in other ways, such as sports or hobbies. However, you should be concerned if she seems generally unhappy and doesn't enjoy any meaningful relationships  -- she may need professional counseling. Also, try keeping a diary of your concerns of the more worrisome aspects of your daughter's personality  -- you may find a pattern that proves helpful if she does require counseling.

Discover your child's special something. One of the best ways to pull children out of their shell is to help them excel in something they're good at  -- a sport, academics, art, music, or whatever they show some talent in. If a child succeeds in one endeavor, you'll notice what I call "the carryover effect": The success will carry over to their overall feeling of self-esteem. For example, if your daughter excels in, say, soccer and enjoys it, she may become less introverted, more open, and show leadership among her teammates. Your job is to encourage her in her "special something." This may require setting up a situation that helps foster her self-esteem, if no such situation exists. If she has a musical talent, such as singing or playing an instrument, get her to play for you or sing for you often. Invite an occasional relative or friend to listen her, but don't put her on the spot. If your little performer is not ready to showcase her talent on stage, don't push her.

Be her social chairman. Encourage your daughter to invite a friend with a compatible or complimentary personality over for a playdate or sleepover. When her friend visits, engage them in activities in which you know your child will shine. You're likely to notice your daughter being open, extroverted, and even exuberant about an activity that she wants to share with her pal. Or, throw a party at your home or someplace special. Parties work wonders in helping less popular kids become more popular. Just keep the gathering on the small side; quiet children often tend to feel overwhelmed in large group of noisy kids.

Frame her positively. Suppose you have a parent-teacher conference, and the teacher says to you, "My, she sure is shy." Frame your daughter in a more positive light: "Yes, she is a deep thinker," or "She's a great listener." Above all, don't let your child hear you emphasizing her shyness in a negative way  -- otherwise she'll begin to feel that something's wrong with her, and that will likely make her clam up even more. Remember, shyness is a personality difference, not a problem.

Help her be assertive, but not aggressive. In my opinion, the world already has too many aggressive kids! Being aggressive means infringing on someone else's rights, while being assertive means standing up for your own rights in a non-offensive way. Teach your daughter the difference. If you see a friend bossing her around, talk to your daughter about the importance of standing up for what she believes in.

Help her be comfortable with eye contact. When you speak to your daughter, attempt to make and retain eye contact with her, not in a controlling or intense way, but in a loving, caring manner. Once she's comfortable making eye contact with others, you'll know that she's finally at ease with herself and with proper social niceties.

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