Tuesday 24 October 2017

Both my girls are really shy. is there anything I can do?

David Coleman believes children will find their way socially, eventually.
David Coleman believes children will find their way socially, eventually.
Illustration by Maisie McNeice

Parenting expert David Coleman advises on how to help shy children and what to do when a seven-year-old is having trouble sleeping after seeing scary movies online.

Question: Both my girls (age six and three) are extremely shy when out of the home environment. My six-year-old, for example, was at a birthday party and refused to leave my side. My three-year-old is at montessori and does not speak at all there. She will not answer questions when asked, for example. I have reassured and coaxed them as much as I can but it makes no difference.

At home, they are both very confident, outgoing and chatty. Should I leave well enough alone and hope that they eventually come out of themselves?

David replies: Yes, you probably could leave well enough alone. I do think that, in time, your children will find their way, socially.

There are many children who can be considered "slow to warm up". It is just a particular form of temperament that some children have. Indeed, some research estimates that about 20pc of all children have a "slow to warm up" temperament.

Children who are slow to warm up like to take things at their own pace, doing things in their own good time. They take a real "wait and see" approach to life.

It seems, too, that some children who are slow to warm up may be very sensitive to external stimuli and so can be easily overwhelmed by loud sounds or environments that are chaotic, disorganised or crowded.

There is also evidence that such children are also more attuned to their own emotions and the emotions of others. As they get older they may become very skilled at "reading" the mood or the emotional tone of a situation.

Generally, you need to tread a fine line between giving them enough time and space to try things out when they are ready, and encouraging them to try things before they lose an opportunity.

Let's take, for example, your six-year-old at the birthday party. Being attentive to her needs, and staying with her while she hung out by your side is a great way to start things. It allows her to work out who is there, who is playing with whom, what they are doing and what might be expected of her.

All the time that she is working out these social dynamics, she has the comfort and security of your presence.

But, at some point I am sure that there were some party games organised. That might be the time to remind her that she is welcome to stay with you, but that she might also like to join the games before they finish.

This is just a gentle encouragement to go. If she doesn't want to, then that, too, is okay.

But you do need to be clear for yourself, and her, that this is genuinely a choice to go away from you and to mingle. There is little point in forcing her to go too soon as it may in fact be so overwhelming that it could set her back more, such that she is reluctant to separate the next time either.

A lot of the time, too, it isn't fear so much as a judicious nature that give them the pause for thought. It is not that your children may fear to tread, it is just that they choose to tread carefully.

There are other things you can do to support your two girls. Do try to help others to understand that they will relax into things in their own good time and that there is little point in trying to force them into new experiences too soon.

You can always spend a little time preparing them for new experiences as well. So talk about what they might expect in certain situations, familiarising them with the routine, dynamics or environments as much as possible. You can rehearse things they might say or do.

You can also role-model good coping skills for different situations. For example, you can show them how you might plan ahead for navigating a new car journey by looking up routes online. Or, if you are going to a new restaurant, you may look up the menu in advance, so that you are not surprised by the food choices when you get there.

Mostly, though, I think you just need to be patient with your girls and confident in their ability to take things at their own pace. As long as you offer them opportunities to participate, or not, I think you can trust that as they get older they will mix more, on their own terms.


My seven-year-old son saw some scary videos online and is now terrified to go to sleep. Help!

Question: My seven-year-old son saw some very scary videos which had popped up on his tablet last week. He hasn't been able to sleep properly since, saying that he can't close his eyes because when he does he can see the ghosts and awful scary things. He has been sleeping with me since, but he still cries and there seems to be no way of consoling him. I have tried so hard by telling him to think of his favourite memories, holidays, happy thoughts, etc. This is not working for him. My heart is breaking for him. Any help would be much appreciated.

David replies: It is easy to frighten seven-year-olds. We sometimes forget just how susceptible to frightening imagery and sounds they are. Because we adults can instantly differentiate between fantasy and reality, we can forget how hard a seven-year-old might find it to do the same. As an aside, the fact that the videos "popped up" on his tablet does beg the discussion about whether it is wise to let seven-year-olds have internet-enabled devices without close supervision.

I know that stuff can just happen, and we drop our guard a bit after our children seem to cope fine, without incident online, but there is a constant danger of children being exposed to inappropriate, or age-inappropriate material.

In the aftermath of your son's exposure to the scary videos, you might want to reconsider how your family uses and accesses the various technologies that are out there.

Often when children experience a frightening event, like a scary movie, or getting lost in a supermarket, our natural tendency is to encourage them to forget about the experience.

We, typically, try to distract them onto more positive things. We try to pretend the scary thing didn't happen. We reassure them they are safe now and that something equivalent can't or won't happen again.

But, blocking down, or distracting from the feelings should only ever be a brief, short-term coping strategy. Avoiding the scary feelings is fine in the initial stages, but at some point, we have to help our child to face those fears and to realise that they can cope with them.

We do this by encouraging them to relive the experience, drawing out the different feelings they may have had at different points. So, in the case of your son and the scary videos, ask him to recall exactly what he saw.

Get him to retell the story, complete with frightening imagery. As he tells the story, you can offer soothing and empathetic statements like, "Oh, that bit sounds terrifying", or, "I'd imagine you got a real fright when you saw that".

Two things happen then. The first is that the stories themselves lose some of their power to frighten when they are retold in the bright light of the daytime. The second is that your son comes to realise that you recognise just how scary it all was at the time.

One of your aims, therefore, is to let your son know that you can fully understand just how frightened he was during the videos. But, once you have shown him that you get how scared he was, you can then reassure him that it was only make-believe.

Your reassurances, or your efforts to get him to think about more positive experiences, will have much greater impact when he knows you fully comprehend just how scary it actually was for him.

The other thing you can then do, along with your son, is to create new positive endings to the scary elements of the video.

Encourage him to imagine funny, ridiculous or absurd alternatives to the stories. Those imaginative recreations can also include heroic scenes where your son overcomes the ghosts, monsters etc.

Rehearsing these alternative imaginary versions of the videos will also reduce their fear-inducing capacity, as your son can begin to see them as silly or ridiculous, or may realise that he actually has more power than he thought.

Then, at night-time, there is a greater likelihood that he will recall the funnier, sillier versions in his dreams. This might reduce the potential for crying and upset if he wakes.

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