Some kids are naturally chatty. Others feel awkward and self-conscious when talking with people they don’t know well. They freeze up and say nothing or mutter one-word answers. For shy kids, casually chatting with peers is a challenge, but interacting with unfamiliar adults—even family friends or relatives they don’t see often—can be especially uncomfortable.
Fortunately, most conversation doesn’t involve witty banter. This means that just a little bit of coaching, planning, and practice can help kids manage ordinary conversations. Here are some tips:
Help your child practice looking someone directly in the eyes, smiling, saying “hi,” and saying the person’s name. If eye contact is too difficult for your child, have your child look at the bridge of the person’s nose.
Looking at someone and smiling communicates, “I’m happy to see you!”, which is a great way to start a conversation. Saying the person’s name makes the greeting personal.
Shy kids struggle with greetings because they feel self-conscious. They’re focused on their own distress, but when they look away, they unintentionally communicate, “I don’t like you!” Shy kids also don’t realize that not greeting someone is unusual; it makes them stand out more than the expected behavior of saying hi.
Practicing greetings through role-play can help children get comfortable with them. If your child claims not to know anyone’s name, that may be true! Anxiety can get in the way of remembering or even paying attention to social information.
If your child doesn’t know classmates’ names, you may want to encourage your child to learn a few names every day and write them down. A class list might help. Creating associations with the name and a person can also help. For instance, your child could create mnemonics such as “Julia likes to wear jewelry” or imagining a familiar friend named Jacob with his arm around the Jacob he recently met. For get-togethers with distant relatives, drawing a family tree might help your child learn who’s who before arriving at the event.
The most common question for opening a conversation is “How are you?” or a similar variation. With adults, this question often takes the form of “How’s school?” or “How’s soccer?” With peers, the question might be “How was your weekend?” or “How was your vacation?” If your child answers, “Fine,” the conversation ends right there.
A simple formula can help your child manage this question: “Great!” plus one fact. The “Great!” communicates enthusiasm, which is much more appealing than complaining or indifference. The “one fact” should be something that the listener can picture. This engages the listener and opens the door to further conversation. Help your child come up with some examples of “one fact” to share. Here are some possibilities:
“How are you?”
“Great! I’m looking forward to seeing the new Harry Potter movie this weekend!”
“Great! In science, we’re studying they planets, and my group is doing Jupiter.”
“How was your weekend?”
“Great! I went on a hike with my family.”
“Great! We lost our last game, but the coach has us working on defense.”
Explain to your child that the best conversationalists get the other person talking. An easy way to do this is to ask questions that begin with “How” or “What.” These questions get more than Yes/No answers. Tell your child to be careful about asking “Why?” questions, because they can come across as judgmental. Being genuinely interested in other people also helps your child avoid focusing on feeling self-conscious, and it can build closeness.
You may want to help your child practice How and What questions with your family at dinner time. You could also brainstorm possible questions to ask peers or adult relatives. Knowing a little bit about someone can suggest possible questions. For instance, if your child knows that Aunt Jessie loves to garden, a good question might be “What are you growing this year?” If a classmate has a dance recital coming up, asking “How are rehearsals going?” or “What does your costume look like?” shows that your child cares.
Conversations are like a game of catch: If one person hogs the ball too long, it wrecks the game. If your child tends to launch into monologues, talking on and on in painful detail, this formula can help keep responses brief: First, Then, Then, Finally. This is another one that’s useful to practice at dinnertime. Have your child describe some event from the day using this formula. Here’s an example: “First Carlos and I had a snack. Then we went outside and rode bikes. Then we played basketball. Finally, we came in and played video games until his mom came to pick him up.
Whether it’s with peers or adults, the easiest path toward conversation is to do something fun together. The activity builds common ground and leads naturally to comments and questions. Your child will focus on the fun, which makes it easier to let go of self-consciousness.
© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD.
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Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, author, and speaker, based in Princeton, NJ (lic. # 35SI00425400). Her books and videos include: Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids (audio/video series, 70% off at www.TheGreatCourses.com/Kids), Smart Parenting for Smart Kids, The Unwritten Rules of Friendship, and What About Me? 12 Ways To Get Your Parents' Attention Without Hitting Your Sister (for kids). Learn more at www.EileenKennedyMoore.com
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