Being able to speak up for yourself is a skill, and it takes time and practice for many kids to develop it. They need to have confidence and the right words to say. But shy kids may find it extra hard to ask for help, especially if they’re having a hard time with something.
Here are some ways to help your shy child ease into being a self-advocate.
1. Understand your child’s shyness.
Not all shy kids are shy in the same way. Knowing what’s behind your child’s shyness makes it easier to know how to help. Some kids are anxious about speaking up when they don’t know what the response will be. Some don’t like to talk in front of other people.
Others just need time to get comfortable with new people and new situations. And still others are just content being quiet observers.
2. Avoid labeling your child as “shy.”
The more kids hear themselves described as “shy,” the more likely they are to live up to that expectation. So, if your child doesn’t answer a relative’s question or ask the coach for help, try not to use “shy” to describe how your child is feeling. Instead, try saying that your child is just “not feeling very talkative right now.”
3. Encourage your child to speak up.
Self-advocacy can take place anywhere kids can express their needs. Encourage your child to order when you’re eating out or answer a store clerk’s questions. Or have your child write down questions for a youth group leader.
Kids may need their parents’ help. But if you don’t immediately step in, you give your child a chance to think about what to say and how to say it. It also shows that you know your child is capable.
4. Share the benefits you’ve seen from self-advocacy.
Before kids are willing to speak up for themselves, they may need a reminder. You may need to offer some evidence that self-advocacy can really make a difference.
Share personal stories of times you spoke up for yourself even when you were feeling shy or anxious. For example, “I felt shy about telling my boss I needed some extra time to learn the new software. But he was fine with it. In fact, he liked the fact that I took it seriously. And now he checks in with me after we’re trained to use new programs to see if I want extra time to practice.”
5. Encourage your child to offer input.
Shy kids may feel like what they have to add to a conversation isn’t important. Invite your child to share opinions and help in making decisions. For example, your child could help decide what the family’s having for dinner or what color to paint the kitchen.
Kids want to know that their parents are listening, and that adults value their thoughts. You can show your child this by saying so and following through. It shows your child that speaking up makes a real difference.
6. Practice and role-play.
Some shy kids know what they should ask for, but they have trouble saying it when the time comes. Rehearse sample situations with your child. You can even help create some scripted things to say when your child needs to speak up. For example: “Can I talk to you after class, Mrs. Jackson?” or “I need some extra time to get this assignment done.”
7. Work with your child’s teachers behind the scenes.
Talk to your child’s teachers about what you’ll be doing to help your child self-advocate. That way you can all be on the same page and your child’s efforts, however small, can be recognized. Your child’s teacher or guidance counselor may even be able to do some lessons with the whole class around shyness and speaking up.
8. Start small at school.
Shy kids often need to feel comfortable with people before they can self-advocate. Is there a teacher or adult at school with whom your child is most comfortable? Start by identifying this trusted ally. Then speak with teachers about having that person be the point person your child can go to with questions or for help. Having that level of comfort can help your child begin to self-advocate.
9. Establish at-school self-advocacy goals with your child.
Self-advocacy is an important skill that can help your child succeed in the classroom. Like any skill that’s hard for shy kids, it takes practice. Talk with your child about this and then loop your trusted ally in as well. This will help ensure that your child will have the necessary support when it’s time to speak up.
10. Celebrate small successes.
Recognize and celebrate achievements, even if they seem small. Taking steps like raising their hand in class or answering questions can be a lot for shy kids. Ongoing encouragement will help your child continue to take risks and speak out.
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About the author
Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Donna Volpitta, EdD is the founder of Pathways to Empower. Her work draws on the latest research in neuroscience, psychology, and education.