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!
Recommended Reading For Parents:
- I ‘m Shy: http://therapeuticresources.com.au/i-am-shy
- I’m Worried: http://therapeuticresources.com.au/i-m-worried
- What to do when you worry: http://therapeuticresources.com.au/what-to-do-when-you-worry
- 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.