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Dear David: Is my seven-year-old shy or just attention-seeking?

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"When young children meet adults (even adults they know but don't see regularly) they will often want to observe how their parents are interacting with the new person."

"When young children meet adults (even adults they know but don't see regularly) they will often want to observe how their parents are interacting with the new person."

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David Coleman

David Coleman

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"When young children meet adults (even adults they know but don't see regularly) they will often want to observe how their parents are interacting with the new person."

Clinical psychologist David Coleman addresses your parenting queries.

I don't know whether our seven-year-old is shy? If we attend a family gathering, or anywhere where there are a few people, she either stands behind me or puts her head down and won't say a word to anyone. She comes across as rude.

I only ask her to say hello and smile.

I really don't understand it. She is a happy little girl and is very bubbly at home and with her friends in school. She does participate in group activities such as Beavers and swimming, where she gets on great. I get so annoyed lately as I can't see any reason for her to be acting like this. Sometimes I really do think she does it for attention.

What do you think?

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David Coleman

David Coleman

David Coleman

David Coleman replies: I think that, in many ways, you are in the lucky position of not really having a problem at all.

Think about the positives you describe. Your daughter is happy, bubbly and interacts well with other children, both at school and in after-school activities. It is great that she is so social and content in the company of her peers.

The only slight negative that you observe is that she seems shy and holds back when she meets adults. While, from an adult perspective, this may seem rude, it could actually be seen as a positive and sensible step for a child.

We know that in most novel social situations, children will look for some kind of direction about how to respond and how to act. So, when young children meet adults (even adults they know but don't see regularly) they will often want to observe how their parents are interacting with the new person.

So, if they see that their parent is at ease and comfortable in the company of the other person, it will be easier for them to be at ease too. If they see that their parent is very formal or distressed in any way, then they too will be wary of the other person.

I think your daughter just has a pronounced version of this. In many ways, you could consider it the equivalent of a younger child who is slow to warm up and just needs time to get settled before her confidence returns.

It may have started off as a subconscious way of learning about the social rules and what to expect from people, but has developed into a habit.

Even as a habit, however, it is still quite protective, as the worst that can happen is that she may appear rude, but she will always be safe because she will have waited to see what kind of adults she is dealing with.

I'd be tempted to leave her with this habit, too. It is unlikely to be a problem for most other adults, even family members. They may not have a perception of her as rude, and it doesn't matter if they think she is shy.

I wonder if, in fact, you have more of an issue with her behaviour than she does?

You sound like you are very frustrated by her choice not to interact with the adults she meets. Indeed, your frustration suggests her "shyness" is meaningful for you.

Perhaps you feel that her behaviour, in the company of adults, reflects badly on you? Maybe you feel judged negatively by your extended family? Perhaps you worry that they think you are doing a bad job if your daughter is "shy"?

Perhaps it harks back to your own childhood? I wonder if you were always considered "shy" and if it had very negative connotations for you within your family? Perhaps it just irritates you that your daughter won't leave you be to enjoy your own day, but instead continues to cling to you, ensuring that you have to focus on her needs and not your own.

It may help you to understand the reason for your strong reaction to her. Knowing why it frustrates you may allow you to let it go.

In the long run, your daughter's behaviour won't be a problem for her. I'd say it is highly unlikely that she'll be tucked in behind you when she is 14 or 21.

In the interim, she just requires your patience and understanding that, for whatever reason, she still relies on you for some emotional support when she meets adults. That is no bad thing.

As she grows up and matures she will probably also grow in confidence.

After all, she is already a very happy confident girl with her friends and with her immediate family.

 

 

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