Q&A: How can I encourage my child to interact with others?

Reader asks:

My daughter is two-and-a-half, and she has always been incredibly shy. I’m worried about this because her timidity means that she doesn’t ever play with her peers but rather spends play dates and parties hiding under my skirts. Is there any way I can encourage her to interact more with others?

Sheryl Cohen answers:

Children are born with a temperament. Some children are more reserved than others; some are more sociable than others; some are extroverts, and some are introverts. Often, a shy child has a more anxious or introvert-type temperament. So what are the dos and don’ts on parenting a shy child?

  • Don’t put her under pressure to engage with others. Don’t force her to say “hello” and “goodbye”. You can model this behaviour for her by saying it yourself, within earshot of your child, so she learns to do so herself.
  • While she might not engage with others directly, she might be happy to observe. Allow her to learn about play through observing other children play.
  • Try to pinpoint triggers for anxiety, such as too many people, too much noise and new situations. Once you have an idea about these, limit her exposure, but don’t eliminate it. Help her to be exposed to these situations gradually and with your support so that she gets the hang of it.
  • Be conscious of your own anxiety. The trouble with anxiety is that it is highly contagious. If you are anxious about her not playing with friends, she will pick this up.
  • The more you push her to become what she is not able to be, the more you lower her self-esteem. If you push her to play, and she feels unable to do so, she will begin to feel bad about herself since she is unable to meet your expectations.
  • Should her shyness be coupled with separation anxiety, any fears and phobias, performance anxiety and anticipatory anxiety, you might want to seek professional help. Also, if her shyness gets worse rather than better with age, seek a professional opinion.

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