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October 2, 2014
The Real Issue
Helping a Shy Child Stand up for Herself
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


My six-year-old daughter is shy.

When we go to the park, a children’s center or museum exhibit where children can play, she is often relieved of her playthings by other children. This upsets her, but she doesn’t ever ask the other children to return the items she was using. It upsets me, too, and I usually intervene, but I need to teach her how to stand up for herself.

How can I do that?


I think you are wise to be thinking of how to teach your daughter to stand up for herself. There are times, of course, when a parent should intervene to defend a child. For example, if one child regularly pushes around or takes advantage of a smaller or weaker child, a parent needs to step in.

But as a child gets older, parental intervention becomes less possible and more problematic. For one thing, parents are less likely to be in the immediate area when problems arise. Children might be at the other side of the park, or exploring the woods. They might be at school, soccer practice or camp.

For another thing, as a child matures, it becomes embarrassing for the child when a parent steps in to defend him or set things right. And the child might feel ashamed at not knowing how to handle such situations.

Then there is the further complication of a child who becomes accustomed to getting his way or exacting revenge by running after the fact to an overzealous parent who rains down wrath on anyone the child accuses of slighting, teasing or harming him.

Unfortunately, in such cases, the truth is often stretched as the child explains the situation to Mama Bear, and the word “bullying” gets thrown around with no regard for its actual meaning. As a result, both Mama Bear and Baby Bear gain a reputation for being overly-sensitive and prickly, to their social detriment. So how can you avoid all that and teach your child to stand up for herself? I have six ideas.

First, I suggest you frame your problem less broadly. If your daughter “doesn’t stand up for herself,” it implies an almost moral weakness or a character flaw that needs to be remediated. In fact, however, being shy is not a flaw. It is a trait.

Many lovely people are shy. A world without shy people would be too loud, and devoid of fully half of all literary heroines. We would have Jo and Elizabeth, but not Beth and Jane. And Jo and Elizabeth are simply not themselves without Beth and Jane. Nor would we have Middlemarch, the unnamed protagonist of Rebecca, or The Thirteenth Tale, which would make life poorer.

Therefore, my second suggestion is that instead of teaching your daughter “to stand up for herself,” you teach your daughter specific rules and responses for specific social situations.

For example, let’s say you are at the science center and your daughter is playing with a shovel at the sand table. Another child points to the shovel and asks, “Can I have that?”

Your daughter hands over the shovel without comment, but she is glowering. You want to help her, but because the other child acted reasonably — he asked for the shovel and your daughter handed it over — it is not a situation where you should intervene to recover the shovel.

Nor should you call your daughter over and admonish her firmly to stand up for herself. “Stand up for yourself” probably means nothing to a six-year-old, so your admonition would not be helpful; it would not teach her any useful strategy for keeping hold of her shovel or getting it back.

More importantly, your exhortation would sound more like scolding than encouragement. Your daughter is already feeling bad about the shovel, and now she must face a disappointed, chiding mother who, by the way, wants her to do something incomprehensible.

Instead, you need to teach her what to do when another child asks for her plaything. “Anna,” you could say, “when you are playing with something at the science center, you don’t have to give it to another child until you are done with it. Even if the other child asks nicely or says please. If you are not finished with it, you can say, ‘Not right now. I’m still using it,’ and go back to what you were doing.”

Anna might look pleased at this information. But she might look dubious. “But Mom, they said we have to share.” “Sharing is important,” you can respond, “but unless there is a long line of children waiting to play, you only have to share when you are done with something.”

You might also have to explain that hoarding toys and tools you are not actively using is not allowed. And you might need to put a time limit on how long she is entitled to use a public toy before turning it over to a child who has been waiting.

(For anyone doubting this rule of sharing, imagine what you would do if you were shooting hoops at the church — using the church’s basketball — and another person showed up asked if he could use the ball. “Sure,” you’d say. “I’ll be done in about ten minutes.” And you’d continue playing. This response — essentially saying, “No, I’m using it. You can have it when I’m done” — would be perfectly satisfactory to any reasonable person.)

Third, practice the new script with your daughter. Model it for her first. Pretend you are playing at the sand table, and have her ask you for the shovel. Give the appropriate response and continue playing. Then, reverse the roles. Give her the shovel and let her practice telling you, “Not right now. I’m still using it.”

Then have her practice saying, “Here. I’m done now,” and handing over the shovel. You can adjust the script if she has a different idea of what to say. And you can practice variations. (“You say the same thing when someone wants your swing.”)

The timing of your instruction may vary. You can teach and practice with your daughter either in the moment, when you notice the problem, or later at home. The advantage to teaching her what to do in the moment is that the situation will be fresh in her mind, and she will connect the rule you are teaching her with the frustrating situation at the sand table.

The advantage to waiting until you get home is that you will have an opportunity to think about the situation and formulate an appropriate rule and script. Also, she will probably be less upset by then, and you will have privacy. You will have to choose based on what you know about your daughter’s personality and her ability to remember what happened three hours (or a day) before.

Fourth, remind your daughter of the rule and script, and practice it again with her, when you know you are about to encounter that situation again. The next time you are driving to the science center, say, “Anna, remember that you can share your toys after you are done with them. What will you say if someone asks for your shovel at the sand table, and you are not done with it?”

Anna will respond (or you will prompt her), and you will say, “Excellent. You sure know what to do,” or something else affirming or encouraging.

Fifth, when your daughter uses the script successfully, acknowledge her success and tell her you are proud of her. And when she does not, encourage her to try again next time, or adjust the script to a simple, “No.” Just be sure to avoid any indicia of disappointment or frustration on your part.

Finally, try to anticipate problems before they happen. There are numerous situations in which your daughter may need your help knowing the rule and what to say. If you can anticipate these situations and teach your daughter in advance how to handle them, she will be on her way to feeling more confident in social situations, and better able to stand up for herself.

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