A Game to Help Children with Shyness in Groups

Hi Patty,

Group settings, especially large group settings, are very difficult for my daughter. I see a little girl who has some real fears of these situations, and it really hurts to see others judging because she is nervous and only wants to stay in my arms. She will often display behaviors like nose picking or finger sucking when someone addresses her. Oftentimes, the adult will then make a comment about the behavior, which only serves to make her more uncomfortable.

BoyLookingWhat gets under my skin are the repeated suggestions that she be put in preschool to help mitigate her social anxiety. I disagree with this, as she does fairly well around other kids and is involved in 2 activities, which afford her opportunities to be around other children. I don't see how preschool would help mitigate anxieties that surface in large group, adult dominated settings. It feels like I'm being judged and found wanting, as if my being with her and raising her at home is not good enough. Even if that isn't the intended purpose of those comments, that's what it makes me feel.

I would love to hear any suggestions you might have, especially for playlistening, because my daughter really enjoys when we work on things that way.

-Perplexed for Playlistening

Hi Perplexed,

Good for you for holding your own amidst adults who are not attuned to your daughter's needs, and whose advice and promptings (with all the best intentions) actually undermine her confidence. You are doing a good job of thinking for yourself here.

Here is a suggestion of a game I have often done is to hold a child in my arms, and peek in at a large group, then say, “Let's run away!” in a playful, not playfully fearful, but simply playful tone. Then, I run, and the child jiggles along in my arms. We run maybe 20 feet, and then turn around and I pay attention, listening, seeing how the child is.

And when we're connected and I've paid attention, I say, “Let's peek again!” and tiptoe up to the gathering, peek in, and repeat. This often gets children laughing. You are not forcing the child past her comfort zone. You are staying close, body to body close, to provide safety. Your tone is playful, also providing safety. And you are creating a tiny, safe adventure, then taking the “Let's get out of here!” role, so she is not the one who wants to run, you are. She is along for the ride.

This kind of game can go on for a whole hour. If there's laughter, it can relieve a lot of tension, and help a child trust that you understand how much she really can handle at one time.

If you do this kind of game for a good long time, then you build enough safety to help her with the deeper level of feelings.

So then, after NOT forcing her to try to function past her comfort level, but eliciting laughter and staying close, you can propose to go in and talk to one person. And you don't play, you say, “I'm going to help you go in and say hello to XYZ (the safest, kindest person available). Just for a minute.” and see if she can cry about the idea. You don't DO it, you PROPOSE it, and Staylisten. You may need to nudge her physically toward the situation to get the tears to come, but they will come if you've built enough safety. Listen. Let her cry. Don't give up on your proposal, but don't do more than inch toward the situation you have proposed. An inch every 15 minutes should be plenty to keep the deeper fears rolling out and healing.

Let us know how it goes.



2 thoughts on “A Game to Help Children with Shyness in Groups”

  1. My son (2nd child of 4) has always had difficulties.in social situations. At toddler group I used to explain that he could go in without speaking to anyone and he could sit under my chair with his blanket over his head until he felt he wanted to come out and play. If we needed to visit family or friends I used to discuss with him strategies to make him feel comfortable for example ad soon as we arrived he could go straight Into a quiet room and not be forced to greet anyone or he could stay In the car until he felt ready to come in. I was advised to out him in preschool to help him overcome his social anxiety and I can honestly say it made him much worse. We tried for months to get him to settle and with hindsight I cannot believe I ever tried that route with him. I would definitely never do it again if I had my time over. He never went back to preschool and he started relaxing more within months. He is homeschooled and by letting him go at his own pace he is now a much more confident and and at ease socially. At one time used to erupt into wild boisterous often inappropriate behaviour in order to deal with social situations or would hide from visitors to our house and if strangers spoke to him he would either hide behind me or jump around wildly pulling faces because he would just panic in social situations which meant he just didn’t know how to behave. He is now 7 and good at conversing with people of all age ranges from babies to adult and most people who meet him would not realise how shy he can be. He is still very sensitive and can have difficulties with shyness occasionally however, I think that always giving him options to avoid difficult situations allowed him to feel more in control. once he felt comfortable that he had choices he felt more secure interacting because he knows he has the choice to withdraw at any time thereby reducing his anxiety. I hope this makes sense and well done for not allowing other people’s judgements and comments stop you from listening to and understand the needs of your child x

  2. Thank you! Its a great article. I love how we can extent playful attitude to almost anything. I am using it with adults, because after all we all have this part of us, which is playful, curious and fragile… an inner kindergarten i call it 🙂

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top