KatieOlthoff.com participates in affiliate marketing and other forms of advertising. We only recommend products and services we believe in and think they will be of use to you. As such, posts on this website may contain affiliate links. For more information, please read my disclosure policy. Thank you for your support of this website and our family.

6 Ways to Encourage a Shy Kid

Adam is very talkative at home, but much more shy in public or around people he doesn’t know.  It’s very common for his age (3) and we thought it was adorable when he replied “I’m shy” when a well-meaning bank cashier asked him how he was doing.

I was okay with the fact that he was shy.  Sure, it was a bummer when he wouldn’t perform and show what a smart, funny, polite little boy he could be.  But it wasn’t a big deal.



It started to get to me, though, when I read a little blurb in a parenting magazine about selective mutism.  Basically, a child who is selectively mute is able to speak, and is often very talkative at home, but does not speak in public because of severe social anxiety.

I read up on selective mutism and heard stories of children who didn’t utter a word their entire kindergarten year.  Or kids who got on the wrong bus and were too terrified to tell the bus driver what had happened.  And kids who couldn’t answer test questions and were inappropriately placed in special ed classes.  I also read that selective mutism can get worse as a child ages, not better.

So, I admit, I overreacted and convinced myself he was selectively mute for a few days.  (Anxiety runs in my family.  Can you tell?)  I called my friend, Laura, a speech pathologist.  I asked my principal at school what she knew about it.  I even asked Adam’s Kindermusik teacher what she thought.

But as I watched him in public for the next few days, I realized that I was totally over-reacting and he was just shy.


However, I was still bothered. I noticed that his shy-ness kept him from participating in activities that he loved.  For example, he had been in Kindermusik for over a year with the same teacher.  He sang the songs at home daily, but had NEVER sang a single word or answered questions in Kindermusik.


So, I did some googling and decided to try a few things.

shy kid

  1. Quit using the word “shy” especially in an apologetic tone.  No more, “Sorry, he’s shy.”
  2. Give him time to answer.  This happened often at church…people would say, “Hi, Adam, how are you?”  We’d only wait a split second before answering for him.  Count to five silently, and if he still doesn’t answer, model an answer, like, “We’re doing well!  How are you?”
  3. Rehearse.  In the car, on the way to church, I would model how to answer when peopled said hi.  I would say, “I bet when we get to church, someone will say, ‘Hi, Katie, how are you?’ and I will say, ‘Pretty good, how are you?’”  Same thing before going into the store.  “What will we say to the clerks at the cash register?”
  4. Praise him for “brave talking.”  I explained that sometimes people feel nervous when they talk to people they don’t know well, but they can be brave and talk anyway.  Do not ever, ever, never, ever punish your child for being shy, but rather, praise them when they stretch their comfort zone a bit.
  5. Don’t ask him to perform.  Oh my, I was so guilty of this.  No more, “Adam, tell Grandpa what we did yesterday.” or “Adam, tell them your funny joke.”  This is still a hard one for me.
  6. Learn friends’ names.  We took pictures of his friends at Kindermusik and practiced their names at home.  I pointed out familiar faces at church and named them when we saw them.

We also decided to focus our efforts in 3 places:

  • Kindermusik
  • Church
  • Stores


After just a few weeks, Adam was “brave talking” sooo much more.  And now, about 5 months later, he will ask children he doesn’t know to join him in a game at Kids’ Gym.  He sings, loudly, at Kindermusik.  He told the librarian his name when he was checking out a book.  He made a new friend at the McDonald’s play place. 



I hope this didn’t sound like I was trying to “fix” a shy child, because I truly wasn’t. He’s still my Adam, and he’ll probably always be slow to warm up to people. But now he has some coping mechanisms for dealing with his social anxiety, and we’re no longer enabling him.  I’m proud of his “brave talking” and I hope that by helping him deal with social anxiety early on, it will be less of a problem as he grows.

Would you like to comment?

  1. What a great post! Thanks for sharing. Dallas is also very shy in public, but talks non-stop at home. I am definitely going to try your suggestions.

  2. This is great! Thanks so much for sharing! Mel is very shy and talks up a storm at home, but not at all in public. I too worry about her not participating in class. When I took her for her three year check up the pediatrician kept asking her questions and she wouldn't answer. I bet the dr. asked me five times during the visit if she talked. As soon as the Dr. walked out of the room she started talking again. I am going to try all of these things!

    Sarah @ this Farm Family's Life

  3. That's awesome that he is 'brave' talking so much more out & about! I'm really going to take note of these things...my little girl is 2.5ish and talks so, so much at home...I see her completely shut down when we're out. To the point I feel sort of bad b/c she looks so scared. I've worked a little harder at having other mom's from the area over with their children, but I'm definitely going to try out your tips. Thanks, Katie!

  4. Thanks for sharing with us. Adam is such a cutie. I'm glad he is talking more!

  5. Good work! It's funny how we learn so much when we're trying to teach our kids. And I love hearing great ideas with a follow-up! We don't have this particular problem (Lincoln gives hugs all around, for instance, when I'm talking with a group he doesn't know and he walks up), but I try to be careful with how I label things because Lincoln picks up on it. It's great to hear how you've successfully applied the same concept!

  6. Be careful what you wish for ;-) No, our oldest is shy, but she is starting to come out of it. I like your ways of helping Adam find his voice. He'll get it, just be patient.

  7. P.S. I think most parents spend the first year of a child's life enticing him/her in every way to move and talk. We spend the rest of our parenting years saying, "Be still and HUSH" or some variation of that idea ;-)

  8. This post is wonderful. Thank you! I identify with Adam a lot. I was silent in public as a child, and well into my high school years. I've slowly grown to understand my shyness and be more comfortable with it. Now I work with 3 year old kids every day and can totally see these techniques working. Definitely the giving time to answer. Such an important point!