Does your little one tend to get overwhelmed when there are other children around?
Do they cling to you for dear life whenever you visit somewhere new?
Do they tend to keep on the side lines in playgroups?
Maybe I should just accept that this is all part of his personality. To answer your question ― no, you aren’t indulging your child when you offer them lots of cuddles, and yes, we should accept their personalities but it doesn’t mean we can’t support them in building their self-esteem.
Tip 1: Understand why it happens
Our children are especially sensitive to sensory stimuli to aid them in their cognitive development. Our younger children quite susceptible to being overwhelmed as the process of filtering noise and other stimuli only develops as they get older. In such situations, they tend to seek comfort from you until they are able to better adjust to the surroundings.
Children also go through a period where they are particularly sensitive to order and routine. During such a phase, unfamiliar grounds and faces tend to be unsettling for them. Having a deeper understanding of what goes through their minds helps us appreciate them better. We can do so much to support them during this phase such as bringing their favourite toys along and offering plenty of cuddles.
Accept that they’re going to need some time to warm up ― involve them in what you are doing instead. Usually when they’re preoccupied, they eventually let their guard down and are more likely to join in the fun.
Tip 2: Be their secure base
When children feel overwhelmed in new social settings, one of the best things we can be is that safe, secure, familiar place for them to work out their feelings and suss the environment out. They’ll probably want to stay close to you and have you by their side for added security. In most instances, being over-enthusiastic when you try to convince them to join the others will likely backfire.
Instead, stay calm, accept that they’re going to need some time to warm up ― involve them in what you are doing instead. Usually when they’re preoccupied, they eventually let their guard down and are more likely to join in the fun. Another way is to bring a favourite toy or book along, so they have something familiar to hold onto in this new space, giving them a boost of confidence. And when parents make less of a deal when their child eventually heads off to play, you’ll avoid triggering self-conscious behaviour from them.
Tip 3: Talk them through the day
Most of us like having some certainty about our day and children aren’t any different. Getting into the habit of talking your child through a few key activities the night before is usually helpful. For larger events like birthday parties or a new class, you can even try building up to it two days prior and on the morning itself.
Things to address include what the child might expect to do there, who they might see, what they might feel about the activity, things they can do if they feel overwhelmed and how you’ll get there. This prep work can really help set the tone for the day, and give your child the necessary tools to manage their feelings, if necessary.
Another method is to include some role-playing, especially when it comes to dealing with a challenging situation. For example, you can teach them how to say “stop!” if someone they don’t like comes too close or to cover their ears if it gets too loud.
Tip 4: Don’t use their feelings to label them
It’s common for us to say, “oh, she’s shy” when a concerned parent asks why our little one isn’t joining in on the fun. Unfortunately, it tends to be self-fulfilling, with the child starting to believe that they really are shy when, perhaps, it’s not entirely shyness. Instead, simply stating the feeling, such as “she is feeling shy today”, is a more effective way of acknowledging your child’s feelings without reinforcing any labels.
Sometimes, children will pick this language up from elsewhere as well, responding with, “I’m shy” or “I’m scared” when it seems like they want to get out a situation. In these cases, remind them that while they may be feeling this way on this particular occasion, they are also brave and courageous (bring up specific examples to remind them)!
I recommend unstructured play environments as young children need the space and freedom to explore, learn about themselves and subsequently, how to relate to the others in the group.
Tip 5: Provide opportunities for them to practise
It’s like working out a muscle ― the more you use the muscle, the stronger it gets. When it comes to managing social situations, even some of us adults need time to practise. For toddlers, I like to adopt these two strategies. The first is to find one or two places which really suits my child and take him there often, so he gets to be familiar with places other than our home. This not only builds their confidence in dealing with new places, they also get used to adapting to new surroundings.
The second strategy is to set up a weekly playgroup with the same children and keep it to a small number of around four children, maximum. This gives your child the opportunity to develop familiarity with these children, which helps them bond and be more comfortable with each other.
I recommend unstructured play environments as young children need the space and freedom to explore, learn about themselves and subsequently, how to relate to the others in the group. This way, they’ll simply focus on just playing and feeling comfortable with the people around them. Often, enrichment classes are filled with so many activities that the children hardly interact with one another at their own pace.
Victoria Yim, who is Montessori-trained, is mum to Liam, age 2. The former public relations manager is the founder of The Bright Life, which organises workshops and private coaching to empower parents.
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