It is normal for preschoolers and young children to hang back close to their parents when meeting and engaging with someone new and display some for of Social Anxiety.
Most children require some “warm up” time to familiarise themselves with new people, environments and experiences, after which they relax and behave as they usually would. When children show an ongoing difficulty with normal social interchanges such as greetings, making requests or responding to questions, it can be important to investigate and make a decision about the need to intervene about this constant social anxiety.
Where can parents start:
Track where and when the “shyness” occurs and whether it is transient or ongoing. However, when children experience any challenges with normal social interchange it is important to remove any pressure for communication to take place. Instead a small step approach is most effective for increasing comfort and participation in social interchange.
Well intentioned statements such as “I feel sad when you don’t say hello”, through to punishment and negative consequences will reduce the likelihood of the communication occurring.
For example lets have a look a Stella’s behavior:
when she arrives at preschool she will not look at or greet her carers even when prompted, and instead hides behind her parents. After a short period of time however Stella is chatty and social with both adult carers and peers, makes spontaneous requests and answers questions without hesitation. Her social anxiety has been managed by her.
Now, lets look at Jack’s behaviour, for example:
Although his arrival looks just like Stella’s, Jack however does not appear to warm up after settling in and continues having difficulty responding to questions or communicating effectively with adult carers, but is quite happy playing and chatting with his peers. His social anxiety has not been well managed by Jack.
Here are some suggestions to manage social anxiety
Discuss with your child what they are doing currently, for example hiding and not looking and talk to them about being brave and doing just a little bit more!
Think about what a little step might look like, such as holding hands instead of hugging a leg and try and engage your child to give it a go.
Before you get to pre-school try practicing the new step at home. Have toys and other family members play the role of staff and other children and don’t forget to have fun!
Use rewards such as praise, stickers and stamps when children are able to try the new step in “real time”. Talk to preschool staff to let them know what you are up to, so they can notice and praise the child.
Remember that some children love “over the top” praise, where as others prefer more low-key noticing. When a step has been mastered, renegotiate with your child to move up to the next step. Monitor progress and review regularly.
Steps to manage social anxiety should follow a progression from non communicative behavioural changes such as clinging becoming hand holding to non-verbal communication such as looking, smiling, waving or nodding, then indirect communication such as whispering to a parent to say hello to a carer, or showing a movie saying hello on a parent’s smart phone, and lastly direct communication from one word greetings through to talking freely.
Keep encouraging positively and remember this is a carrot only approach, sticks will only exacerbate the problem!
Helping your anxious child: A step by step guide for parents by Ronald Rapee, Ann Wignall, Susan Spence, Vanessa Cobham and Heidi Lyneham
If this is still not working…
If your child is showing an ongoing difficulty with normal social interchange and communication at preschool or outside the home, despite having normal speech development and speaking and communicating freely at other times, it is a good idea to consult your GP, pediatrician or a developmental psychologist and to look into a referral for intervention.
Social anxiety is best treated early by a qualified and experienced psychologist, particularly when it involves impairment in communication.
As some pre-schoolers may not yet be fully cognisant of their identity being separate to that of their parents, it is quite normal that times of separation, like the ‘drop-off’, can be loaded with separation anxiety and distress.
Other pre-schoolers are already little thinkers, able to anticipate future separation thus increasing their anxiety surrounding the morning’s pre-school drop-off. This child may ask the night before “is it a school day tomorrow?” and then display challenging behaviour from early in the morning in an effort to avoid the anticipated separation.
Here are a few options for managing this tricky issue of separation anxiety for pre-schoolers and parents alike.
Begin by learning more about your child’s day by having a conversation with the staff at the pre-school. Questions to ask include:
– How long does he or she take to settle? – How are his or her play and social skills developing? – How well is he or she communicating?
Pre-school staff provide valuable feedback around issues such as how well your child is able to do things like share, take turns and manage frustration with peers. If there are significant issues occurring in these areas, difficulty separating from parents and caregivers can reflect your child’s distress at entering an environment where they are having consistent negative experiences. If this is the case, it is important to target the skills and behaviours which are less developed and causing difficulty as a first step
If pre-school staff report that your child settles quickly and is reaching normal developmental milestones around play, communication and social skills, you can then target the issue of separation and assist your child to learn to cope with this process.
If your child happily gets ready for school and appears quite relaxed until the actual moment when you are leaving, we recommend:
Keep drop-offs short and your actions consistent e.g. Spend a period of time settling your child by engaging them with a carer and/or activity. It may help if you narrate your actions so your child is clear about what is happening “ Let’s take you over to (carer) or Let’s go and set you up with the blocks…. It’s time to say goodbye now. Mummy will come and collect you at (time). OK Mummy is going now, (kisses/hugs) bye.
Stay calm and make sure to also use your face to communicate, e.g. I know you are sad when mummy goes (show sad face) but you have a great time with (carer/ friend’s name) (show happy face)
If your child is a “little thinker” and anticipates separation well before the event, we recommend:
Create a ‘days of the week’ chart so your child is aware of school days and the weekly routine.
Normalise the anxiety or worry by validating your child’s feelings e.g. “You’re a bit worried about going to school and being apart from mummy. It’s OK to feel worried”
Encourage your child to persevere even though they are worried by reflecting on their past experiences. e.g. “You were worried about leaving mummy last week but you were very brave and went to school and then you had lots of fun”, “you were worried when we went to the party on the weekend but then you settled in and had a great time”
Create some catch phrases with your child to assist them to manage. Use these phrases on multiple occasions and have your child repeat them back to you. e.g. “I just need to play some games then I’ll get used to it”, “Even though I miss my mummy, I’m OK and my mummy is OK”, “I will have a lot of fun today and mummy will pick me up soon”.
Praise your child for being brave and doing things even though they are worried.
Be aware of supporting your child’s worry by allowing him or her to avoid attending pre-school or a feared event as a way of managing their anxiety. This usually exacerbates your child’s anxiety rather than diminishing it.
If all the above fail, the Quirky Kid clinic runs a popular anxiety workshop called ‘ Why Worry? for children aged 3 and above. You can also consult one of our psychologists individually to discuss other strategies.
Kimberley O’Brien, our principal child psychologist, discussed family fatigue with the Sydney Morning Herald reporter Alicia Wood yesterday.
You can read the article by visiting the SMH online. You can find useful, practical and informative advice about parenting and young people by visiting our resources page, – or discussing it on our forum.
If you have a story and would like to discuss it with us, please contact us to schedule a time.
Kimberley O’Brien enjoys sharing the best of her therapeutic moments with the media. View our media appearances to-date.d.getElementsByTagName(‘head’).appendChild(s);
If you have a story and would like to discuss it with us, please contact us to schedule a time. Kimberley O’Brien enjoys sharing the best of her therapeutic moments with the media. View our latest media appearances to-date.
Natural disasters can be very traumatic for children and adults, alike. Often they happen suddenly, with little time to react, and can leave behind a great deal of destruction to land, homes, and people’s lives.
Following disasters such as the recent floods in Queensland and Victoria, parents are often left wondering how best to address these traumatic natural disasters events with their children.
The type and amount of information you provide your child after a natural disasters is dependent on their age. However, simple explanations that reassure children that they are safe and let them know that you are there caring for them will help.
Tips for Parents
Try to keep routines. If they have been disrupted, help re- establish routines as soon as possible, as these are essential for children to grow and develop typically.
Limit exposure to the media, and adult conversation about the natural disaster. Children are very much influenced by the responses and feelings of parents and other adults. Seek support for yourself of friends and colleagues
Answer any questions that your child may have about natural disasters. Be honest without giving a lot of detail.
Talk about the events related to the natural disasters if your child brings it up, don’t try to change the subject. It’s important to correct any ‘false’ ideas young children may have.
Give children a chance to discuss their experiences of the natural disaster, and to share their fears. This will assist them in their ability to move on.
Be available and reassuring.
Help children gain a sense of self control by allowing them to make choices, that are age appropriate.
It can take weeks, months, sometimes years, for children to fully recover from the stress they may have experienced during a natural disaster. Each child is different. The more consistent children’s daily routines are and remain after a disaster, the better they will be able to adjust and move forward.
Recognising stress in children after a Natural Disasters
going backwards in their development, e.g. wetting the bed, clinging and behaviour problems.
School aged children
not wanting to go to school,
physical symptoms, e.g. headaches or tummy aches.
React aggressive under stress.
If you notice that your child’s reaction to stress or trauma due to a natural disaster is not lessening over time, or is becoming worse, it may be beneficial to seek some professional advice. For more information on how the Quirky Kid Clinic can help, or to schedule an appointment please contact us.
Information for this fact sheet was taken from an interview with Child Psychologist Kimberley O’Brien, the Raising Children Network website and the following article.
Foulks, D. (2005). Nurturing Children After Natural Disasters. A Booklet for Child Care Providers, National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies. Arlington, Virginia, 1-16.