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Ask Dr. Sears: Shy Kid

Q  My three-year-old daughter is terribly shy, even with her own family. She opens up around other children, but when it comes to adults, she just doesn't want to be bothered. She'll hide behind my legs or just look at the floor if someone tries to speak to her. Is this normal? Is there something I can do to bring her out of her shell?

A The fact that your child opens up around other children is encouraging. That she is shy around adults simply means that she hasn't yet learned to be comfortable relating to people who are much bigger than her. Adults talk differently and act differently than her peers. This can be overwhelming to some children.

Between two and four years of age some children go through a second phase of stranger anxiety, similar to the one they went through in infancy. Just as you did in the earlier stage of stranger anxiety, help your child be comfortable with other people. Here's how you can help ease her into being more comfortable in adult company.

Regard shyness as a personality trait, not a fault. It may be that your daughter's shyness is really cautiousness and deep thinking. Some children are just slow to warm up to strangers. They tend to study a new person before investing themselves in a relationship. Respect your child as being more discerning about relationships. This sort of social retreating is a normal stage of development at your child's age.

Above all, don't label your daughter as "shy" or apologize for her by telling people: "She's just shy." This will simply give your child the message that something is wrong with her - which it isn't. If your child hears that she is shy, she will feel more shy. If you need to explain her behavior, use the terms "private" or "reserved" to describe the stage your child is going through.

Teach her to be comfortable with eye contact. Speak to your child the way you want her to speak to others. Maintaining eye contact is important to good communication. When talking to her, say: "I need your eyes, I need your ears." Give her eye contact, but don't make it so intense that it feels threatening. Since children love animated and exaggerated facial expressions, use a lot of facial and other body language gestures while talking to her.

Exhibit her special something. Pick out what your daughter is good at. Is it playing with a certain toy? Playing a musical instrument? Or singing a special song? Encourage her to do her special thing in front of other children and adults. Yet, don't put the little performer on the spot by springing this on her suddenly. Ask her in advance if she would like to sing her special song for her friends. Children love to share their favorite things with others. If she has a special story that she loves to tell, encourage her to tell it to adults.

Adults should be fun to be around. Shy children often warm up to adults who engage them in a fun activity. If your child enjoys a special game, play it with her and then gradually work in the other adults and children around her. As your child begins to enjoy the game, she's likely to forget her shyness around strangers and simply have fun.

Ease your child into conversation. Here's a trick I use with children who appear to be shy in my office. Sometimes when I enter an exam room a 3-year-old may lower her chin to her chest, dart behind her mother, or bury her head in mom's chest as if trying to withdraw from me. I temporarily ignore the child and begin talking to the mother in an easy and friendly way. As the child listens to our conversation, she notices how comfortable her mother is relating to me. The child then picks up from mom that I'm okay.

You can use this same approach to introduce your child to a stranger. Greet the stranger in a friendly way and begin a conversation without even mentioning your child. Let your child pick up your comfort with the stranger and then gradually work your child into the conversation. Once your child picks up that the stranger is a mom-approved person, she is likely to join in the fun. As your child sees by your example how much fun it is to socialize, she'll gradually catch the spirit. Give her encouragement and space and watch her personality unfold.