Q. My 4th grader is shy and has a learning disability. We just moved here, and I’d love for her to make new friends. I don’t want to make this awkward for her by pointing out that I know she’s shy. How can I help her?

A. Your question is a common concern of many parents who have shy children—with or without learning disabilities. You probably need to deal with both issues, but keep in mind they may or may not be separate issues.

Shy kids in some cases are more introverted or sensitive than others. It’s best not to label these kids in front of them with statements like, “I’d like you to meet my little shy girl.” Labels can be hurtful and even self-fulfilling.

There are many options for increasing your daughter’s circle of friends, but remember in the end she’ll probably select her own friends. Sometimes friends come from the neighborhood or school and other times from a common interest such as sports or a hobby. A new friend might come from a group a child joins, such as Girl Scouts.

Here are some suggestions for you:

  1. Help her practice social skills by each holding a stuffed animal and speaking for them, as in, “Have you met my father? Let me introduce you to him.” Practicing social skills (including eye contact and social scripts) can help children with social interactions. It can especially help the child who has learning disabilities.
  2. Meet your neighbors. Bake or buy some cookies and take your daughter with you to knock on doors and deliver your treats. This will help you find neighbors with children the same age and give you a chance to model not being shy.
  3. Invite any neighborhood children who are your daughter’s age, one at a time, for a play date such as a picnic or a trip to the museum.
  4. Consider helping a Girl Scout leader and taking your daughter along to meetings to see if she is interested in Scouts, where she’ll have contact with some girls her age. Ask your daughter to help in prepping for the meeting.
  5. Ask the teacher if he or she can help your daughter interact with other kids in the classroom.
  6. Introduce your child to new interests, possibly through reading or trips to places that present new interests, such as an animal shelter, a recital by music students, a cooking class or a place to volunteer with Mom.
  7. Consider starting an after-school or weekend group for girls. This could be a book club, a cooking club or any kind of group that might fit with your daughter’s interests or needs in terms of making friends and/or dealing with her learning disabilities. A book club would enable you to work with your daughter on reading skills.
  8. Reward efforts by your child to do new things and interact with others. This could be a smile or a few words of encouragement.

I often volunteer to help with children’s activities. The children make crafts or drawings. I see children who approach the activities with great enthusiasm, as well as children who seem shy and refuse to take part with a shake of the head and a quick retreat from the craft table.

Are these kids shy or afraid of failure in making something that isn’t perfect? Or could they just lack self-confidence? Kids who shy away from making friends or doing activities need encouragement. Their every effort to break away from shyness needs to bring a smile to your lips and a few positive words.

Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.

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