Q&A: helping a shy 4-year-old

I got two virtually identical questions on the same day, which always fascinates me. My friend Theresa writes:

"My 4-1/2 y.o. son has always been a bit on the shy side, especially with adults.  We attribute some of this to his background - we adopted him from Kazakhstan when he was almost 1-year-old.  His birthmother released her parental rights the day he was born, so he went straight from the maternity hospital to the orphanage to, one year later, our home.  Although he's bonded really well to us, we suspect that there is some subconscious fear of abandonment at work.

He is sociable with children he knows and relates well to his preschool teachers and to the parents of his friends.  He does not, however, do well with adults he doesn't know extremely well.  This is starting to interfere with his life in that, although he lives, breathes and sleeps sports, he is unable to interact with coaches in any of the 4-year-old athletic activities we've tried, and has "failed" his first readiness assessment for kindergarten (which consisted of a one-on-one interview with a woman from the admissions dept. of a local private school).

We have more private school playdates and readiness assessments in the near future and tee-ball starts soon.  Does anyone have any ideas of how we can, gently, make him comfortable enough with these types of situations so that he can successfully interact?"

I know that I'm definitely not qualified to offer an opinion about whether his orphanage time or adoption has anything to do with his shyness. I will give the data point that my older son (a few months older than JR) has been in a period for about a year of not wanting to interact at all with unknown adults, and sometimes being downright rude in just ignoring them and acting as if they don't exist. (This from a kid who was nicknamed "The Mayor" when he was 2 because he made friends with eeeeveryone.)

And clearly JR and my son are't alone, because Lucy writes:

"Camille, my little girl, is 4 years old. She's bright and funny and perceptive. She's very sensitive to the goings-on of the world around her and always has been. Not to the point where I'd call her highly sensitive (I guess), but it has caused some challenges to both her and to me and my husband as parents. For example, when she's with a friend who disagrees with her or "corrects" her, she dissolves into tears and drama and clings to my side. It's a normal and hard lesson to learn - you're not always right; people are different - but with her reaction, you'd think the world was ending. I tell her people are different, wipe her tears, give her hugs, but I often feel so helpless in getting her beyond the drama… and yes, exasperated too.

She can also be so shy around children who are unfamiliar to her. Inevitably, though, after we attend a church event or birthday party where she's been the wallflower, she'll excitedly tell us all about the great things that happened and the people there - just like she was in the middle of things instead of shyly refusing to participate. I encourage her to participate in all of these events, but try not to do that to a point where she's uncomfortable.

And Camille has been in a clingy stage for a while. With me especially. Going back to school after a long break is hard for her, with tears in the morning ("I'm SIIIIICK, Mommy!"), frustration and all that. This is especially challenging, so if there are specific suggestions for helping school mornings go smoothly, please pass them along. Again, I try to get through this in a loving, supportive way, but it makes mornings really stressful for the whole family.

I want Camille to be happy and unafraid of the world and new people. I want her to be a little more independent. I want to encourage these things in a way that will help her grow and not feel like I see her as inadequate in any way. Please advise."

I hate to say it, but it think our kids are not atypical. (Well, OK, I don't really hate to say it, because it's nice to know your kid is not some strange anomaly.) I'm not sure what to do about all this stuff, but here are some behaviors I've observed in my son and his friends:

  • shy and/or downright rude around adults
  • anxious about friendships (who wants to play with whom on any given day)
  • wishy-washy about social situations (being really excited about going to a birthday party, then freaking out and refusing to go on the day of the party)

If I'd been smart I'd have hunted down the Ames & Ilg book on 4-year-olds, and it undoubtedly would explain all of this. But after weathering the moods of the 3-year-old I got cocky and decided to do four without a book. So this is all just my speculation, and if anyone has the Ames & Ilg book, just jump right in with what the actual experts say.

I think this is the age at which kids start to realize that they are separate from other people. They know they're different from adults, so they start to get shy around adults. They know they're not other kids, so they're sensitive to other kids liking them or not and who likes whom. They start to say things like "boys like x, but girls like y," because they're starting to distinguish who they are in relation to other people.

The attitude I've tried to take (and it seems to be serving me well because I'm not anxious about this phase at all) is that it is just a natural phase of development. it's part of the separation process, and part of the process of kids learning about themselves.

In particular, I really wouldn't worry about shy behavior. Kids who are shy have really solid boundaries, which can be a healthy protective mechanism in a ton of situations. If your child seems particularly anxious, that can be something you want to work on, by taking baby steps to gradually expose the kid to more and more things, making sure you never push the child too hard past his or her comfort level. But just shyness is something to be observed but not worried about, like left-handedness or brown eyes. It's the way the kid is, and as long as the child is able to be friends with one or two other kids (at this age--remember that kids younger than this like other kids but aren't really engaged in active friendships per se) and do normal daily tasks, it's just a way of being.

If the adults who regularly interact with kids this young are shocked by your child's shy behavior, I'd be surprised. So many kids this age are either shy or just refuse to talk to grown-ups. Your kid is certainly not the only one. If you feel you need to explain, say your child is shy and does better warming up gradually to a situation. A professional should definitely understand and act accordingly.