Parents usually love when their kids are outgoing and gregarious crowd-pleasers. But when kids clam up parents tend to get a bit anxious themselves and make the proclamation — or maybe more the apology — “Oh, he’s just a shy one.” The “shy” label may be somewhat accurate, but it does nothing to honor the child or help him become more confident about who he is.
The first step in helping these more sensitive kids grow in confidence is to be aware of and address our own anxiety about it. Children feel our anxiety and it adds to their aversion to social situations, because now everyone’s self-esteem rises and falls with the child’s sociability. My (Lynne’s) first attempt to help our anxious daughter Bethany meet new people, was to drag her out from behind me, and through gritted teeth command her to introduce herself with her 8-year-old voice. Like that’s gonna make her enjoy meeting people…. When I laid my frustration and embarrassment aside to focus on what she needed to feel confident, we began to make good progress.
Children that resist participating in social situations may be sensitive to the sensory stimulation of new people or groups, or they may be insecure about what they will do or say. These children often want to be social, but their fear dominates the draw of being with people. They may have an elevated fear of being humiliated or embarrassed in front of people, or they may struggle with low self-esteem or feelings of inferiority. It’s important to find out what is causing your child’s difficulty in social settings, and develop proactive ways for her to be comfortable.
If the issue is sensitivity to the noise and chaos of a group, scale the stimulation level down until you figure out what is the “just-right-challenge” for your child.
- Plan outings with smaller numbers of kids, structuring fun activities that have a high degree of order vs. chaos.
- Do a fun big muscle activity just before the social situation to relax your child.
- Help your child avoid the crowds by entering a social situation before others get there or enter after others are settled, so they are not swept in the door with a big wave of kids. Andy was so overwhelmed by being herded into his classroom in the bumping, chattering mayhem that he would spend his mornings in the bathroom. When his mom began to bring him early, he would connect with the teacher and complete a helpful task while the kids arrived. He immediately began to participate in class for the whole day.
- Let your child know you are available for a break if she gets overwhelmed (if that’s an option — this won’t work for every situation). Bring a few favorite books or toys for kids to get away and de-stress before rejoining the group.
If the issue is insecurity — low self-esteem, embarrassment, or anxiety about how to interact or what to say — a key is to build values and give kids skills to be confident and others-focused.
- Make feelings discussions a regular part of your family. If kids can begin to articulate feelings that are hindering them, those feelings begin to lose their intensity and you can problem-solve the situations that intimidate them.
- Help your kids become more interested in others, and less worried about being interesting to others. Teach older kids how to ask questions; at dinners or car rides play the Question Game: Each person asks someone a question and answers a question until everyone has had a turn at both answering and asking. Parents can model asking thoughtful questions and encourage kids for their efforts.
- Give your child a helpful responsibility to start a social gathering, like taking the coats of guests at a party and helping hang them up. Serving others is a highly effective self-esteem booster. *
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For either type of child (over-stimulated or insecure), provide the minimum amount of help needed to empower success, and then fade out your assistance as he gains confidence. This creates a “just-right-challenge” that enhances learning. When the social engagement is over, talk about what went well — when did your child have fun, help someone, share a toy, or talk to another child? Celebrate the success!
Eventually, Bethany blossomed as the true people-person that she is as together we figured out the next “just-right-challenge” in her learning to be comfortable with new people. Along the way, we even had two “Sesame Chicken celebration dinners” to discuss her progress. There was no need to pressure her anymore – she was excited to help others feel valued and comfortable.
* Michael Resnick, Building Resiliency, from Concept to National Agenda, from a speech given at the Pacific Rim Conference of the International Association for Mental Health (June 25-28, 2000).