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How to help a shy child become more sociable

Forcing a shy child to engage in group activities is likely to increase social anxiety. Arranging one-on-one activities or play dates with another shy child will probably be mutually beneficial - advice to a Hong Kong parent

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 October, 2015, 2:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 October, 2015, 4:56pm

Our seven-year-old is exceedingly shy. He doesn't enjoy social activities, including sports, that other kids his age are generally involved in. He would rather play alone. He has one friend who is also quite shy. His mother and I have conspired to arrange weekly play dates, but whereas the boys get along fine, both kids sometimes baulk at cooperating. My son occasionally tells me he'd rather read or play on his own than play with this other boy. When I ask why, he tells me he "just would". His school counsellor has recommended that the other mother and I get the boys together on a regular basis no matter what. My son does well in school, does his homework on his own, is very creative and is a happy camper when it's just us and his older brother. Your thoughts, please.

As your grandmother might have said, "It takes all kinds to make the world go around".

Like any other trait, sociability is distributed among the general population of children according to a bell-shaped curve. Theoretically for every child who is very outgoing there's a child who is very shy. According to several studies, most shy children have fully "recovered" by the age of 30. That, in fact, applies to me.

While reluctance to engage socially with others can result from trauma, most shy children are simply "born that way". I put the term in quote marks because no one really knows what causes some otherwise high-functioning children - as appears to be the case with your son - to be socially reticent from an early age.

Like your son, many if not most shy children are independent, intelligent, imaginative and creative and therefore adept at entertaining themselves. They are inclined towards hobbies, art, musical instruments and other activities that don't require the participation of other children. Whereas they'd rather play alone than in a group, shy children are more socially empathetic than highly outgoing kids. They feel very secure in their families and may, therefore, bond more effectively to their families' values than outgoing kids. In other words, shyness has a positive side.

Forcing a shy child to engage in group activities is likely to increase social anxiety, so I don't recommend it. Arranging one-on-one activities or play dates with another shy child will probably be mutually beneficial, however: you and the other mother should continue conspiring. If your son complains that he doesn't feel like playing with the other child, simply say, "You don't have to. I've invited them over because I enjoy [the other mother's] company." I will bet they'll end up playing with each other.

As much as possible, do outdoor things. Go to a park and fly kites, go on hikes, take field trips to museums. Enrol them in chess lessons. These sorts of activities will provide good opportunities for them to form stronger relationships.

You can't fool Mother Nature, but you can push her along a bit.

Tribune News Service