QUESTION: My daughter is in elementary school and is extremely shy. So shy that it is affecting her schoolwork and friendships. What can we do to bring her out of this shell?

JULI: Unfortunately, many kids struggle with shyness. According to Dr. Jerome Kagan, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, about 10 to 15 percent of kids in elementary school are very shy. For some, their shyness is a manifestation of a reserved personality trait. For others, shyness is a symptom of anxiety. The fact that your daughter’s grades and friendships are being impacted suggests that she is probably in the latter category.

One of the best ways to combat anxiety is to make the world a more predictable place. You can help your daughter with this by role-playing everyday situations like what to do when you meet someone new or when someone teases you at school. You can also work with her teacher and other school staff to make social interactions at school more predictable.

School can be an overwhelming experience for a young child. Your daughter may begin to develop more self-confidence in social situations by interacting with smaller groups of children outside the school setting. Start by inviting over a potential friend for a play date. It is even better if the friend is a classmate so that the relationship carries over into the classroom environment. You may even want to ask your daughter’s teacher for recommendations of what kids in the class would be a good fit for a friend.

If you find that these interventions are not making a difference, it is time to seek help from a qualified professional. Most schools have on-staff counselors who are skilled at handling anxiety-related behavior. Your school or your daughter’s pediatrician may also be able to refer you to an expert in your area.

QUESTION: The other day I heard my junior high-aged son and his friend laughing about a classmate who passed out by sniffing an air freshener. I wanted to ask them about it, but I thought they were probably just making up stories. Surely they were joking about this?

JIM: Sadly, this has become an all-too-real phenomenon. Even as illegal drugs continue to plague youth culture, some of the most harmful substances to your kids might be sitting right under your own roof.

In 2010, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration released a study about an increasingly popular youth pastime known as “huffing.” This, as you may have surmised from your son’s conversation, is when kids attempt to get high by inhaling common household products such as shoe polish, glue and, yes, air fresheners. It sounds absurd, but research shows that more 12-year-olds have used household products to get high than marijuana, cocaine and hallucinogens combined. This is a very real problem.

The use of inhalants can cause a child’s heart rate to increase dramatically. In some cases, the end result is cardiac arrest and sudden death. Even for kids who try huffing only once, the risk of serious injury or death is considerable.

I’m not suggesting that you lock up all of your household products. But your son needs to know that this is no laughing matter. As you talk to him about the pitfalls of alcohol abuse and illegal drugs like marijuana, be sure to let him know that “huffing” is a dangerous -- and potentially deadly -- pursuit as well. Help him make smart decisions and stand up to peer pressure. Your active presence in his life is the strongest defense he has against the dead-end road of drug and alcohol abuse.

Jim Daly is president of Focus on the Family, host of the Focus on the Family radio program, and a husband and father of two. Dr. Juli Slattery is a licensed psychologist, co-host of Focus on the Family, author of several books, and a wife and mother of three.

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