How Can I Help My Shy and Fearful Child Become More Confident?

Reader Question: I have the sweetest 4 year-old who is very good with people and quite intuitive and sensitive as well. The problem is that he is beginning to not want to do anything or go anywhere. When it’s time for school, he holds my leg and says “nuh-uh”. I signed him up for swimming and soccer. His swim lesson is private and once we arrive at the pool, he clams up and doesn’t want to do it. The most concerning is soccer. He doesn’t want to leave the sidelines while the other kids run around having fun. My husband and I hate to “push him” into anything he doesn’t want to do, but we don’t know why he doesn’t want to do anything. At school, the teachers say that he likes to mostly watch and his head is often in the clouds.  I know there is nothing wrong with him, he is very happy.  Unfortunately, he’s very quick to say that “he’s tired” and just doesn’t want to participate.  How can we make him a little bit more assertive? I need to add that he has a baby sister (20 months old now) and both my husband and I were shy as kids. Thank you in advance for any advice that you can provide.

MOM: This is somewhat of a complicated issue but I think the most important pieces of information is that there’s a 20-month old sibling who must be coming into her own and must take lots of attention.

MOLLY: Do you think that’s the key issue?

MOM: I would say that that could possibly be the key issue, yes.  What’s not clear from her question is whether there’s been a change. Was he more active and involved at some point?

MOLLY: Before his sister was born?

MOM: Or six months ago? He may be somewhat regressive in the face of the competition his sister offers. The younger child has to take a lot of time up for the Mom and he might be feeling pushed out or “kicked out of the Garden of Eden” and is struggling with the idea that he has been replaced.

MOLLY: Sounds like he’s really fearful.

MOM: Yes, he sounds fearful and I don’t know if it’s fearful of a separation from his mother or something else.

MOLLY: Also, that he claims that he’s tired or doesn’t want to do it – he sounds like he’s really scared to try something that he doesn’t know how to do.

MOM: Right, so she and the Dad may have to help ease him into things. For instance, with soccer, one of them could be playing soccer with him during the week. Kicking the ball around, practicing.

MOLLY: So maybe it’s that he’s scared of not being good at these things.

MOM: Right. The problem is that we don’t know exactly what the problem is and the parents probably need to do a little more investigating about that.  He may be somewhat regressive in face of the serious competition his sister offers. If she thinks this is contributing to his withdrawal issues, the mother might say to him, “Has this been hard for you, because Mommy has to spend so much time with baby sister?” And if you can help kids put words to it, it’s amazing what children can come up with. The mother could also talk to him about how much she is enjoying his “older” status: look how much he can do and how much you admire what he’s doing.

MOLLY: It seems really strange to me that that issue would cause the lack of desire to try something new.

MOM: Well, I can remember when you were really little and your older sister would go to preschool and she cried and cried at preschool. I had to take her out for a number of months until she felt more comfortable and not pushed out so much by the new baby.

MOLLY: Was she acting like she just didn’t like preschool?

MOM: Yeah, she would cry at preschool, she didn’t want to be there. I think there’s a lot to that. It would also be helpful, if the Mom can, to spend some one-on-one time with him, maybe get a sitter for his sister at least once a week and take him on special excursions to the library, playground, etc.

And, of course, there is his basic shyness that shouldn’t be forgotten. I think, though, that his reluctance to do activities may have more to do with separation from the mother.

MOLLY: How do you take into account the basic shyness?

MOM: You have to try different things and see what will work. You don’t want him to be a complete introvert because he won’t learn any social skills or physical skills. I think this is a separation anxiety issue. But I would also have him checked out by the pediatrician just in case there is a physical cause for his tiredness.

MOLLY: Do you think for the shyness, that practicing soccer or practicing swimming would help?

MOM: Yes, because then he’ll feel more confident in his abilities.

MOLLY: Some of that shyness is a lack of confidence?

MOM: Yes, a lack of self-confidence about whatever he’s doing.

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