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Dear David Coleman: How can I help my shy 3-year-old's confidence?


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Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q: I'm looking for some advice to help with my shy 3-year-old boy. He gets on great in Montessori, playing and chatting happily. But he holds back at birthday parties, visiting friends, using bouncy castles and going to the playground. He has no problem climbing and using even the highest slides when we are alone, but won't join in when others are around. I don't want to force him to do something if he's uncomfortable but I know he is excited about going to these places yet he opts out. How do we encourage him to be more confident in these situations?

A: Many children are 'slow to warm up' in social situations. Indeed being 'slow to warm up' is a temperamental category in itself. As many as 50pc of adults define themselves as 'shy', so your son is very definitely normal.

Sometimes we may only think of shyness as a negative attribute, but there are benefits to being cautious too. In truth, society needs the balance of people right across the 'exuberance' spectrum, from those who are very shy or reserved to those who are very forward, brash and socially engaged.

Like most parents, you sound like you are concerned that your son's shyness is holding him back from fully experiencing life and doing things he might otherwise enjoy. This is one of the very definite drawbacks of shyness; that the anxieties a child feels might inhibit them from doing things, or even lead them to actively avoid doing things.

Introversion and shyness are different. An introverted child may be alone because they want to be (they enjoy their own company), whereas a shy child may be alone because they are too afraid, or feel too timid, to be with other children.

If we return to the concept of the 'slow to warm up' child, though, it gives us a hint as to how to help shy children. Give them time and experience in those situations where they might feel timid, or might feel a bit anxious so that they can learn that they can cope and that they are able to mix and have fun.

As a parent, our natural protectiveness may lead us to swoop in and either take over the 'socialising' by arranging everything to allow our child to fit in, or by removing them because they seem so uncomfortable.

But, we need to hold back from these instinctive responses. Instead we need to let our children sit with the possible discomfort, without encouraging them, or facilitating them to avoid it. That is not to say that we have to leave our children in distress. We don't. But we do need to give our children the chance, or the opportunity, to try to cope with the social situation.

Naturally, we don't want the discomfort to be overwhelming, so it is fine to still be a supportive presence in the background. That way we can emotionally available to them if their distress rises.

Sometimes it can help children to feel like they have one or two children in a group that can be a social support to them, or be a bit of 'social glue' to facilitate them getting to know other children.

Your son, for example, has no problem making friends, as he has established friendships in Montessori, but he may have found the experience hard, or may have needed lots of time and support to do so.

So, arranging one-on-one playdays with a child who is due to be at a birthday party that your son has been invited to, might give him the initial connection he needs to branch out a little bit wider.

Similarly you may find that if you make an early introduction to one child at the event, that you feel will be open to including your son, it might make it easier for him to feel comfortable enough to engage with the other children.

Also getting to a venue early, before a big group is formed, may also allow him to establish enough of a connection to a child, or children, that he feels “protected” from the busy-ness, indeed whirling-dervishness, that often marks out a group of three year olds!

It sounds like you are finding a good balance of continuing to bring him to the events, yet being understanding that he just needs a bit of time and space to find his feet. Your confidence in his ability to be okay in these situations might go a long way to encouraging his confidence.

** If you have any parenting queries for David Coleman, please email dcoleman@independent.ie. Please note that David cannot enter into individual correspondence   

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