I get invited into some of the best discussions with parents! Recently I had a wonderful on-line discussion about shyness and social anxiety in young children. Because adults often learn in the context of other’s questions I’m going to share with you what you would have overheard had you been sharing my chat with this mom. Of course, I’ll change the identity cues because every parent deserves to be in charge of what information they share with the world.

Dear Dr. Y,
I’m hoping you can give me some perspective on whether I have reason to be concerned or whether I’m overreacting. My daughter will be 3 in just a couple of months. She hasn’t shown much shyness before, but this week she has been showing signs of extreme shyness or social anxiety. At a party she buried her head in my shoulder and, even after she started playing, wouldn’t let me leave to talk to other adults.
Then walking home from daycare today, we ran into a friend of mine, who crouched down to say hello and ask her about her stuffed animal. After my friend walked away, my daughter said that she feels shy around people, and “I don’t want people to say hi to me” and “I don’t want people to look at me.”
Is this normal developmental toddler stuff, or should I consider this a possible initial sign of social anxiety? I should say, too, that my husband has social anxiety. If she has it, I want to start interventions as soon as we can, both for her well-being and so we know the best way to support her. Thanks so much!
Concerned Mom

Dear Concerned Mom,
Let’s see what I might be able to offer you for context and support. First I need to say you’ve offered me a question with multiple layers: developmenttemperament and fear of issues you’d like to head off at the pass if you can.

Developmentally she’s right on target for realizing the world is a huge place and some of it feels big at an emotional level. This point at the edge of toddler to preschooler is when we begin to build skills for coping in social interactions or with other challenges like the separation a bedtime. As you described her behavior you can see a variety of potential strategies that she is spontaneously exploring:

  • Avoiding (hide my head),
  • Having a companion for safety and support (“Mom don’t go away while I play”),
  • Trying to take charge of the situation (“I don’t want to say Hi!”).

All healthy. All normal. And all a call to her adults to help her learn how to manage social demands and what to do with feelings.

Temperament is biology. Reflective temperaments have more cross-talk between the hemispheres of the brain when encountering something new. When there are several variables including a new environment, they have to process those more broadly (kids in motion, multiple conversations/noise) than an extrovert brain that buffers that process by focusing more narrowly on a few elements of the environment (my friend, a favorite toy). I obviously have not fully described brain activity, but offer this as another element of who we are as children and who we become as adults.

Having a reflective temperament or being an aware toddler/preschooler does not necessarily destine one for social anxiety. This is where good parenting and support come into play.

One immediate parenting strategy is to be aware of potentially overwhelming a reflective child by walking into a wall of activity, noise and people without preparation. The usual strategies of support are to arrive early and let the group get big around them OR use verbal preparation to prepare them to focus more narrowly. Perhaps something like these examples

“Remember this is the house with the tent in the corner of the play room, do you want to start your play there?” or “There will be lots of friends where we’re going, Sam and his Mommy will be there. Let’s be a team and find them first”.

For those “big people” interactions parents teach the “rules of engagement” (sometimes we call them manners) by role playing and practicing. Get the dolls or stuffed animals and have them talk to you and daddy through her. Put her in charge of the words they say so that her practice is felt as play. If it’s a day when you encounter a friend and she really isn’t going to “practice with Ms Q…” don’t make too big a deal of it.

Remember, anxiety feeds on anxiety. If you are able to bring ease and lack of judgment to these encounters, it not only models social interaction for her, but can provide a counter balance to her feelings of unease. So perhaps you say to Ms Q something like, “it looks like this is a day she isn’t ready to practice saying Hi. She’s getting bigger and will know how to do it pretty soon.” This takes away the immediate pressure to perform for others and still keeps the door open for the child to “grow bigger and learn how to do it.”

How does this kind of parental support buffer the long-term risk of developing social anxiety? At the biological level it keeps the brain from being flooded with stress hormones. Once flooded the researchers tell us that it’s seven times harder to learn and process new information. This parent coaching along the way helps learning happen in small enough chunks that a child can gain confidence and acquire social skills.  It also keeps us focused on the child without putting her in a box labeled “shy.”

Remember throughout life we are called to learn new skills, so not having it fully figured out as a young child is okay. I am a case in point. I am a reflective temperament. That did not keep me from marrying and having a wonderful family, nor from having a rich and satisfying career as a parent educator, where I engage with groups–large and small. In my new role as author and entrepreneur, I am sometimes feeling very much like your daughter, as I learn and build new skills for book promotions or meetings with corporate HR staff with intent to reach parents more parents like you where you are most of the day.

We often look for growing edges in the young and forget that we are really lifelong learners. Thanks for sharing the questions that open all of us to learning together.
Dr. Y