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How Can I Help My Shy Son?

By Debra Collins, Family therapist

Question:

My son plays well with his friends as long as he's with only one or two of them. Once more kids join in - or when I introduce him to my friends - he is really shy. He won't look in their eyes when spoken to and will speak in a very low voice. How can I help him? Are there any activities or places to go where he can learn to socialize successfully in a group?

Answer:

You raise an interesting question. Studies on child development show that there is a different perception about "shy" boys versus "shy" girls. In general, researchers observe that parents and teachers tend to praise boys for being outspoken and girls for being reserved. They note that this adult preference begins in preschool and may continue throughout a child's school years.

Social and cultural expectations can reinforce behaviors that are seen as desirable or undesirable, depending on the complexities of the issues and the individual temperament of the child. If a shy boy feels that others disapprove of his behavior he may become more socially awkward. Over time, this can be difficult for boys and they become more lonely and withdrawn.

To further discern if this is an adult expectation versus his temperament, it would be important to know if it your son sees his behavior as being the problem. Is his shyness apparent in only adult interactions?

How does his teacher view his social skills? Does he participate in class activities and discussions? You mentioned that he does have good peer relations. Some people prefer smaller groups. His behavior may not be an issue for him when everyone is enjoying themselves.

If you feel he is socially awkward, his teacher might provide opportunities to increase his interactions. Many community counseling centers and medical centers offer socialization groups. If you determine what scenarios make him feel anxious, you can help him by providing simple scripts or role playing. It's important to be positive and model good communication skills to avoid stimulating more anxiety. Participating in group activities that challenge and interest him is another way to practice social skills.

For further information: Boys of Few Words: Raising Our Sons to Communicate and Connect by Adam J. Cox.

Debra Collins is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has worked in both primary and middle schools as a school counselor. She gives workshops to teachers and students and offers parenting classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more, visit her website.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.