How can I get my soft-spoken kid to speak up?
Bethany Prescott, a parenting coach and therapist in Austin, Texas, offers insights and tips about this common (and often worrisome) tendency:
Shyness often grows out of sensitivity. At the first moments of social interaction, there’s lots of data to take in, a lot of expectations; that’s overwhelming to sensitive kids, so they kind of lock down. They’re overcome by discomfort.
When they’re younger, they might hide behind a parent, freeze, or even stick out their tongue or blow raspberries. As they get older, they respond to these uncomfortable interactions by speaking very softly or avoiding speaking altogether. Boys will also often make animal noises or sound effects or act silly (like pretending to shoot or hit) to avoid talking. It all results from the same thing—sensitivity to that initial engagement moment. So don’t assume it’s an issue of disrespect or of low self-esteem.
Some kids are just born with a sensitive temperament that makes these social interactions harder. It’s noticeable in preschool when we expect them to say hello, for example. Parents typically have less patience with it when these kids start school; we expect them to show more “big kid” behaviors.
Being soft spoken and shy doesn’t start out as a self-esteem issue. But it can become one, especially if a child gets pigeon-holed or criticized for it.
See sensitivity as an asset you need to work with. Start by letting your child know it’s OK—even beneficial—to have a quiet nature: “You’re very observant. That’s part of your superpower.”
Timid kids tend to get coaching all their lives to speak up. They try, and they can get better at it. But when they’re young, it’s important to start normalizing being quieter so your son or daughter knows that he or she is not a failure, not “less than.” It’ll also make your coaching more effective. You’ll just get shut out if your child feels misunderstood, judged, or criticized.
To get your child talking, try simply soothing his or her anxiety: “It’s OK. Calm yourself. Find your words.” To boost volume, try “Practice using your strong voice.” (With girls, avoid the popular phrase “Use your big-girl voice!” It has a negative connotation, insinuating that she’s talking like a baby.)
Choose the right time to coach. You’ll have the urge to sometimes say things like “Tell Mrs. Robinson hello!” or “Say thank you!” when your child balks at speaking. But as kids get older, they become very sensitive to being prompted in the moment, in front of other people. So help ease the interaction (just saying hello or thank you yourself or by repeating or clarifying what your child said, for example) and wait until you’re alone together to say anything more.
Later, do some coaching in private. Maybe say, “Next time, try looking up at her when she asks you a question so she can hear you better.” Being alone with you will make your child much more receptive to your advice.
Have your child tag along with you to watch you engage with other people. Get your son or daughter next to you when you’re volunteering, serving coffee at church, or selling something for a fundraiser. When you model how to speak and interact with others, they learn how to do it, without feeling on the spot.
If you think your child is ready, try challenging him or her with some interaction of their own. Think normal, real-world practice. Maybe it’s her ordering her own drink at a restaurant or him answering a doctor’s question directly instead of doing it for him. Succeeding at challenges with small-to-medium levels of anxiety creates resilience and confidence.
If your child is resistant to practice, model it. Sometimes, even after you’ve normalized being quieter and coached a child on how to say things, they’ll still clam up. In that case, just model the interaction, saying something like “Watch me do it, and next time you can try.” Make it a teachable moment rather than a power struggle.
Above all, don’t feel the urgency to hurry up and get your daughter or son to be more assertive. While soft-spoken kids can benefit from coaching and practice, they also need a lot of nurturing to build up their confidence. In fact, sensitive children tend to become social masters. They’re taking in everything, becoming good listeners, and learning about people and how to interact with them.