Dear Miss Faith,
I am worried about how to deal with my 3.5 year old daughter’s ‘shyness’. Whenever we see a new person or even someone she knows (eg bumping into a friend in the supermarket) she hides her face, makes a loud, whingey, grumpy noise, runs to hide and refuses to speak to them. It’s hard to see her being so rude when the little girl I know is gregarious and happy. I tell her that its ok to feel a bit shy but it’s not ok to be rude and she needs to say or whisper hello, even if then she stays close to me or has a hug. I know I shouldn’t be concerned about how other people view her but I want them to see my daughter the way I do, a sweet, happy, engaging child. She also does this whenever we arrive at preschool (where she goes 3 mornings a week). Have you any suggestions for me?
Thanks for writing! It can be so hard to know that others can’t see the wonderful child you know her to be when she’s comfortable. Remember that every child has his or her own challenges to overcome. For your child it may be talking to people in public, but that social child you see may have trouble with food allergies, chronic potty accidents, or learning how to be inclusive of others. It can be hard not to take it personally when your daughter’s issue happens in front of every stranger, but remember that she is her own person, and your job is to nurture her and create the conditions for her to be able to bloom; you can’t force it to happen.
My suggestion is to give her an image of her growing into this new role, and then give her the example to imitate. This can create the space for her to step into when she’s ready. So instead of insisting that she whisper hello, which clearly feels overwhelming to her, you might say, “Oh, it’s our friends Jenna and J.J.! Will you say hello to them, or shall I talk for you this time?” She hides her face in your leg. You say, “Carmen (or whatever her name is) says, ‘Hi, J.J. How are you?'” Then when it’s time to go, you might suggest, “Let’s wave goodbye together.” You wave, and maybe she does or maybe she doesn’t. After they leave, you mention, “You’re just learning how to say hello and goodbye to people.” Be really nonchalant about it. If she feels uptight even about that, you might say, “Oh, not today, and probably not tomorrow, but someday we’ll see our friends and you’ll say, ‘Hi, J.J.'” You’re setting up the image of her growing into it, without putting pressure on her for it to be right now. She’ll grow into it.
For now, really talk for her: say the words you wish she were saying, use the tone of voice you wish she were using. This does two things. First, it really teaches her through example. Second, when we talk on a child’s behalf, children at this age can feel like they really are talking. Then it’s just a little step, and another little step, for them to grow into doing it for themselves. So first she can watch and memorize what’s expected, then she might be able to do pieces of it along with you, and finally decide that she’s ready to do it on her own. Of course, she may be able to do it with some people before others, or in the morning when she’s rested but not in the afternoon, etc. Gradually she’ll grow into it. Does this seem like it might work?
Warmly, ~Miss Faith