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My Kids Are Painfully Shy

Convey acceptance by noting that they don’t have to enter into long uncomfortable conversations — they just need to be able to offer their name and age.



y kids are painfully shy. It’s embarrassing when they can barely say their name or age when asked by guests or even family members. What can I do to be validating but also empowering about this issue while still accepting that this is who they are (which happens to be the polar opposite of extroverted me)?


You’re on the right track by wanting to be validating and accepting of a trait that your kids have inherited. It’s not their fault that social communication is painfully uncomfortable for them. You can say something like, “I know it is hard when adults ask you to tell them something. I can see that you feel uncomfortable. I want to help you find it a lot easier to say your name or age when someone asks you.”

This would be your introductory speech. Then you can go on to teach your kids how to offer their name and age. Realistically, they’re not going to want to do a whole lot more than that for a long time, but at least they can learn to do this minimally acceptable social behavior. Moreover, being able to accomplish it will allow your children to feel more confident and happier when people are around.

Convey acceptance by noting that they don’t have to enter into long uncomfortable conversations — they just need to be able to offer their name and age.

Next, begin your concrete educational plan. As with any new ability, it’s important to teach skills incrementally, building on small successes step by step. Begin by explaining the “target behavior.” You can say something like, “I’ll show you exactly what I want you to be able to do. Daddy will help by pretending that he is someone like a neighbor or one of his cousins who you’ve never met. He’ll ask you your name and age. I’m going to pretend that I’m you! I’ll answer his questions.” At that point, you parents can put on a little skit for your children, sounding something like this:

Your spouse pretending to be a guest: Oh, hi there! What’s your name?

You, pretending to be your child: My name is Shayna.

Spouse: Oh, what a lovely name! And how old are you, Shayna?

You: I’m six.

Spouse: Well, it’s very nice to meet you.

When playing an adult guest, be sure to use the syrupy, exaggerated voice that some adults insist on using when talking to children — realistic practice sessions will produce the best results. Include in your practice sessions a few variations in the phrasing of the questions, such as, “Well! Who do we have here?” or, “And who might this be?” or, “Oh, and you must be Shayna! How old are you, dear?” and so on.

Provide the role-playing model three or four times so that your children can become very familiar with what is being asked of them. Then, you’ll ask each of your kids, one at a time, to practice answering their name and age, as either you or your spouse pretends to be the guest. On the first practice, accept and praise any response, even one that is mumbled so quietly that you can barely hear it or one that is spoken with head down looking at the floor.

After praising, ask the child to practice a second round, this time using a louder voice. Praise each attempt and keep practicing until a nice loud, clear volume is achieved.

Then ask the child to look up with normal eye contact while speaking. Again, praise all attempts and keep practicing until the child can do the task.

Finally, ask the child to stand up straight while responding (rather than clinging on to your skirt, hiding behind something, or otherwise retreating from the interaction).

Finally, invite someone to come over specifically to ask your kids their names. Explain to this person that you need some live practice sessions for your kids’ social skills. When your kids offer any performance that was better than their pre-practice behavior, offer generous praise and also rewards. They’ve worked hard and deserve acknowledgement! Continue until competence is achieved.

Expect your kids to be able to do this task even if they don’t enjoy it. Don’t give up your training, teaching, and reinforcement just because they’re balking. If you’ve done everything for several weeks and you aren’t getting anywhere, take your child for some professional help. Anxiety-based behaviors are reinforced by avoidance, meaning that if you don’t follow up with your expectation that your children can appropriately say their name and age, then you’re actually making it harder for them to achieve competence in this social skill. Your conviction that they can do it will help them do it. Your patience and perseverence will pay off.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 897)

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