Health

Tuesday 16 September 2014

My shy little son plays on his own – what can I do?

Dr David Shy Child

I am a single mother to a four-year-old boy. I am worried that he doesn't mix well with other children. He was invited to a party by one of the other boys in his crèche and it was held at one of those play centres.

My little boy didn't play with any of the other kids at all.

He went up on the climbing frame but only got about halfway up, at which point he came back down in tears telling me that he was scared. He then played at floor level all by himself until it was time for cake.

I am also concerned that he has difficulty sticking up for himself as he has often mentioned instances where other kids take his toys etc, and he never fights back.

Lastly, I am concerned that I may be making him too cautious by being overprotective of him. I am the type of mother who is terrified of letting him up on the highest slide in the playground while other mothers effortlessly let their younger, and smaller, kids fly up and down them.

My son has very little contact with males (his father has minimal contact with him) but has three significant females in his life and I do wonder if this is, inadvertently, preventing him developing his boisterous side. Do you think I should just let him develop in his own time in whatever way is natural for him or is there more I could do?

David says: Children's development is always a product of the interaction of their innate ability, their temperament and their environment. As such your influence in your child's development is important.

We know, for example, that parental anxiety can affect children's own experiences of anxiety. If the adults in a room are tense or anxious, a child entering that room will also, most likely, feel anxious or stressed, even if they can't explain why.

So, it is indeed possible that the overprotection of your son, that you describe, gives him a message that there is something to be frightened of, or that he just isn't capable of the task or activity that you are cautious of.

As a consequence he may not try the task, or may give up, rather than fully explore his own limits. He may be taking a cautious lead from you.

If your nature, and that of the other women that your son spends lots of time with, is that you like to avoid conflict, then it is possible that your son too has learned that it may be preferable to give way rather than to provoke a disagreement.

Does he get to see you or the other women that care for him being assertive, forceful, determined, confident and self-assured? These are all skills that you could teach him, by role-modeling, that may help him to stand his ground and stick up for himself.

Research that compares the interactions of mothers and fathers with their children suggests that young children view their mothers as providers of basic needs for things like food, love, comfort and security.

In contrast, fathers are viewed as providers of fun, excitement and play.

Other research shows that fathers' play with their children tends to be more noisy, emotional, boisterous, physical and spontaneous than mothers' play.

Of course, we know that children, ideally, need to have a balance of both male and female interactions in their lives.

It may be the case that your son is getting more maternal, female energy that isn't balanced by a paternal, male energy. This is equally likely since, I'd guess, his pre-school teachers are also female.

So, I think it will help your son to have some time with men. Naturally, you will want to make sure that they are safe and good men. But, assuming that there may be such men in your extended family or among your friends, then I think your son will enjoy just hanging out with them.

Even if you can't find such men, you could get stuck into some noisy and boisterous play with him. It isn't only men that can do rough and tumble play and boys especially enjoy it.

It is natural for boys to learn through movement, physical exploration of their world, lots of hands-on learning and physical activity. So the more opportunities for these that you can create for your son, the more his development will be balanced.

'Raising Boys' by Steve Biddulph is a great book that can really help you to understand what boys, particularly, need to support their healthy growth and development.

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