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.

Best,

Patty

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