Dear David Coleman: How can I get my shy little girl to try new things?
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. My six-year-old daughter is quite shy and while she is content in school, she hates trying new things and isn't great at mixing in bigger groups or with kids she doesn't know. A lot of her classmates are involved in extra-curricular activities, or did summer camps, but despite trying to present different options like music, sport, dance etc, she refuses to join up to anything. I think it's important for kids to have interests and I think it would do wonders for her self-confidence. Any advice on how I could encourage her to try something new?
David replies: It can be hard sometimes to strike the balance between challenging our children enough, such that they try new things and feel a sense of achievement or belonging, and overwhelming them because the challenge seems too much and too anxiety-provoking.
Yet, for most parents, that is what we are constantly doing.
One of the theories of learning is about the "zone of proximal development". This refers to how children move from one developmental stage to the next.
The new stage of development must be far enough out of reach that it is seen as a challenge, motivating a child to strive to move forward, while not being too far ahead such that it invokes a fear of failure or sense of impossibility, both of which will demotivate the child and possibly discourage them from making any effort.
Similarly, if there isn't enough challenge then a child mightn't be interested enough, or engaged enough to put the effort in.
We can hold this theory in mind and see the parallels to other challenges, or 'risks', that a child might face. If the risk seems too great then a child might avoid something, if it isn't risky enough then it might appear boring and unworthy of trying.
This then is the dilemma that you face with your daughter. Do you push her to try things that may seem overwhelming, anxiety-provoking or too difficult, or do you leave her be, with the possibility that she may stagnate or miss opportunities for growth and development?
I do agree with you that children can experience great boosts to their self-confidence from doing something new, that they may have perceived as being too difficult or too challenging. However, those boosts to self-esteem typically only come if the child feels like they have achieved something.
There is also the danger that if a child tries something, and it goes badly (they feel socially excluded or that they are no good at the activity, or that other children were laughing at them) that it will reinforce a negative self-belief that they themselves are 'no good' or are destined to always fail.
What you must do then, is to balance the potential reward from new activities against the potential risk of those same activities.
In your decision-making, with your daughter, you might want to bear in mind that if she is slow-to-warm-up in social situations then her anxieties might also threaten to overwhelm her.
There are a cohort of children that have a 'slow-to-warm-up' temperament and no amount of pushing will change that. These children need to be allowed to go at their own pace, dictating their own comfort in social situations.
So, I think you can certainly encourage her to try new things, but be slow to force her into situations that might exacerbate her fears and lead her to underline her belief that she can't cope with new people or new situations.
Rather than trying to get her involved, separately, in various activities, try taking up some activities as a family. Maybe try swimming, park-runs, fishing, or trampolining. It doesn't really matter what the activity is. The key is that she gets to experience it in the safety of her family, allowing her to focus on the fun, rather than being overwhelmed by anxiety.
This might also familiarise her with the venue, or with some other children that also take part, which in time might encourage her to come back or try the activity alone.
She is still young and so there is lots of time for her to find her own interests. Offering her lots of opportunity to try different things, over time, may help her to do that. In the meantime, let her have lots of play dates, which will help her confidence socially.
Health & Living