Encouraging a Shy Child (page 2)
Q: My two-year-old son is very shy. He becomes anxious when he is around large groups of children, especially in enclosed spaces like indoor children’s gyms or story time rooms in libraries. My question is two-part: 1) How can I help my son feel more comfortable when he is in situations that make him nervous? 2) What are some general tips for encouraging a shy child?
A: Each child comes into the world with a different set of potential characteristics. As parents, our challenge is to find ways to work with—and celebrate—the people our children are. The trick here is to find ways to lovingly accept and validate your child, just the way he is, while at the same time warmly encouraging him, indicating that things are actually safer than he can tell.
Children Benefit From Information
First of all, talk with your son before going into those situations where he tends to become anxious. Since he’s so young, you might not get too many words back from him, but you could start off with something like this, “It’s almost story time. Remember how many children were at the library last time? Remember how noisy and busy all those children can get sometimes? Today when we go to hear the story, we’ll sit at the edge of the circle so you can have some space around you and I’m going to hold you right in my lap like this. If there are too many people for you, or too many sounds, you can tuck your head under my arm like a little bird or take my hands and cover up your ears.”
See what you can do to get your son engaged in the plan to handle this situation. You might take a pile of stuffed animals and set one up with a book and play “story time.” You be the small animal that comes into the setting and finds it frightening. See what your son thinks of to work out a solution for the small animal who is afraid of crowded spaces. If he begins to laugh, he’ll gain confidence in himself as you play this game over and over.
Children Thrive on Fun and Connection
Before going into a situation that you anticipate your son will find frightening, try using our method of Special Time. Children clearly thrive on moments when we are just with them. Take ten or fifteen minutes before you get ready to go and shine your undivided attention onto your child, and do whatever it is that he enjoys doing with you at the moment. Play pillow fight. Drop lightweight balls down the stairs together. Allow some messy water play. Put your son in charge of the interaction and follow him, letting him be in control of the relationship for a time. Radiate enthusiasm for his ideas and desires. This will help to bolster is connection to you and help him store up a little extra confidence for the challenge ahead.
Fear Releases in Laughter
Play that helps children overcome their fears starts by allowing a child “Special Time,” during which the grownup does whatever the child wants to do. During this time, look for opportunities to take the less powerful role. If your child is pretending to go to work, playfully cry and beg him not to go. If your child wants to play chase, try to catch him, but fail most of the time. If your son wants to pretend to go to the kid’s gym, act playfully afraid and hide behind him.
Your child’s fears will release as he laughs while you play the less powerful role. The more you are able to the laughter going, the bolder your child will become.
Children Flourish with a Tone of Optimism
Before making the transition into the situation that has been troubling your son, talk him through what is about to happen with a warm, friendly tone of optimism. Having a tone of optimism can help children feel close enough to their parent to flow better into the new setting. Then, when you get there, close and connected, you can make light overtures offering a gentle invitation to play with you or the other children. Allow a few minutes between overtures for him to try using his own initiative to enter the group. Keep your tone warm and supportive.
Releasing Feelings of Fear
If your son is having trouble breaking out of isolated behavior with simple encouragement, you might need to help him in a more active way. Get close and make eye contact. Listen if he begins to cry. Don’t try to talk him out of his feelings of fear or upset. Listening, and allowing a child who is frightened to cry hard is the opposite of what most parents do, and it works beautifully, but needs a bit of explanation!
Children become afraid when circumstances beyond their control, or circumstances they don’t understand, rock their fragile sense of safety. These feelings can get “stuck” inside a developing mind and mask themselves as a temperamental tendency toward characteristics such as shyness. There may be something specific about circles of children that bring up feelings of fear for your son, feelings that come from some other experience in his very tender past. Luckily, you can help him let go of old fears. We can help children with their fears in the play we do with them and in how we handle the times when their fears overwhelm them.
The situations that instill fear may make a child feel helpless and powerless. To safely release the fearful feelings, children may hang their fears or sense of isolation on a pretext that is ordinary and commonplace. This way, he can bring up the feelings without any chance of experiencing a real threat to his safety. Your child is ready to release old feelings of fear when he is acting deeply afraid of a harmless situation.
Reprinted with the permission of Hand in Hand Parenting. © 1997-2011 Hand in Hand
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