Recently I heard from a parent of an almost 4 year old boy, described as smart, but shy at school. The teacher is recommending testing to see if he’s “on the spectrum”. This is a classic case of teachers diagnosing through suggestion – and while trying to be helpful – it can create enormous anxiety in families.
Worse, untrained (good) intentions can send kids down the wrong diagnostic path. That’s because there are no objective tests for “the spectrum”, as there are no objective tests for the most common boy diagnosis, ADHD. The error rate in diagnosing these is high. Yet, getting the right help to kids early who need it is important. What’s the best approach?
As I say in my book, The Way of Boys, don’t rush the diagnostic process. And beware of your anxiety. The more you worry, the more you’ll likely move ahead without considering all possibilities, including a better school environment or different teaching style. If your teacher has a concern, the best place to start is with a trusted professional that knows you and your child – your pediatrician. Also, giving a young child time to grow and develop is very important. If the problem persist five or six months down the line, then it deserves further assessment.
In the case of this shy 4 year old, I’d start by having the parents address the teacher’s concerns head-on. If there are obvious developmental delays in language, great difficulty in making eye contact, playing almost always alone, and over-fascination with only one or two toys or non-play objects, then I’d be inclined to get him tested now. Otherwise, it’s best to teach him the social basics and see if those help address the concerns.
For shy boys, directly coach them on the steps of how best to relate to others. Teach them these basics, and practice over and over.
1. Walking up to other kids and saying hello
2. Looking kids in the eye
3. Announcing one’s name clearly – with a nice tone
4. Asking the other child his name – with confidence in their voice
5. And most important, asking to join in play or inviting other kids to doing something fun.
Go to parks and playgroups and make it happen. Arrange playdates and keep going to small positive group activities where they see some of the same kids everyday or afternoon. Gently push him away from you and into the company of peers. Keep calm and project confidence so he knows there’s nothing to worry about.
If a child comes back to you, hides, or refuses to leave you, step off. Ignore that behavior completely. Don’t console him. Then try again. Push and encourage him, and slowly walk off, fade into the background. Let him have more and more time away from you. Don’t interrupt the play or hover. Let his social life belong to him (mistakes and all) – that’s how he learns.
Shyness is often constitutional. but it can be molded and shaped. and shy kids often rush to their parents at very low levels of anxiety. Don’t pay it attention – if you do, that only makes future shyness worse. Reassuring too much suggests to your child that maybe there is something real and dangerous out there when there isn’t.
A Facebook parent asked: How much do you push kids to fit in? Our son is sometimes seen as “weird” by the other kids. Their words can hurt. He has impulse problems and doesn’t read social cues well.
On one hand we’re told to get young kids ready for the “real” world. Toughen them up to fit in and adjust to what’s expected. Yet, on the other hand, we’re told not to squelch what makes them feel special and what makes them different or unique. We often tell kids it’s a good thing to follow the beat of their own drum.
These two approaches (and the messages they send to kids and parents) seem opposite and confusing. Which approach should you follow?
Follow both. That gets your kids the best from both approaches. Sometimes fitting in is necessary. You have to push kids to learn new behaviors and squelch their desires to express themselves and suppress their quirky nature. The faster they learn new behaviors to fit in, the less others will be mean or pick on them. This is the basis of learning better social skills, for example at school. Teach the skills they need to know step-by-step and rehearse the new behaviors frequently at home so they can start to use them in the “real” world.
Yet, there are times kids should just be themselves. So help your child “find his people.” These are other kids who are like-minded, share interests, or share a quirky nature. Let them just be who they are in smaller groups. In my office, kids can be themselves, but we always talk about what behaviors go best with what situations. Sometimes we talk about being two people. The person at school or at soccer practice versus the person we really are when at home or when around trusted friends. Adults can relate to this as well.
The sooner you train your kids to adopt different styles of behaving – and teach them which situations to use them in – the more confidence they will have navigating in the world. It will also help protect their inner spirit and allow that spirit to flourish in safer, more accepting situations.