How Can I Help My Child Develop Social Confidence?

How can I help my child to develop social confidence?

The following question was recently received from a Childhood 101 reader and Mum of two:

I was wondering how parents can encourage social and emotional independence in early childhood? I take both my boys to activities such as Music and Swimming and I have noticed that both do not like to get involved/participate. They are still very young (3 years and 17 months) but I couldn’t help but notice in their group music class this afternoon, that both boys refused to hold hands with other people (adults or kids) when doing Ring a Ring a Rosy. All the other children (same age group) did form the ring but my two sons would only hold my hand – we were the chink in the chain, so to speak! In Swimming class, my 3 year old refuses to even look at the instructor. I am wondering if there is something in my behavior that is making them unwilling to participate or interact in group activities? Are there some gentle ways that I can encourage them? I am not too concerned yet, they are still learning after all, but I would like to encourage them to be a bit more confident socially.


So I put the question to some of the members of Team 101 and here are our suggestions;

Cath aka SquiggleMum:

  • Why not try talking gently and positively beforehand with the kids about what to expect within the group setting.  A little preparation in the car on the way can often result in better participation during the lesson.
  • Provide lots of informal opportunities for your children to interact one-on-one with other children of a similar age.  Play dates in your own home, play dates at another child’s home and picnics in the park with another family will help your kids to learn to handle social situations without the pressure of a class setting.

Kate of Picklebums:

I tend to think that our society expects too much of our children too soon when it comes to social interaction and independence.  I worry that pushing early independence is often at the expense of creating and nurturing a strong bond to family and a select handful of other people who truly love and care about our children, and that we may pay a dear price for this as our children grow up.

So I feel you are doing an wonderful thing by attending the music group with them and by allowing them to stay with you and hold your hand without pressure or coercion to join in when they are obviously not ready or simply not interested. By doing this you are showing them that you will always be there for them, that you value the bond they have with you above all else, and that you love them, no matter what. There is no better way to build confidence in children than by being their rock, the place they know they can always go back to when they need it.

There can be a lot of pressure to push your children to join in or be social before they are ready. I know I felt very pressured to ‘fix’ my very shy preschool aged twins and it took me a while to accept that it was ok for them to be shy, that is part of who they are. It was also ok for me to give them time to be ready, not all children develop at the same rate.

Happily joining in yourself is an excellent way to model appropriate interaction and show them how fun something can be. Also, finding the one activity or person that/who really ‘floats their boat’ can really help.  My girls wouldn’t even hold hands with children they’d known since they were babies, then one day I took them to ballet class, expecting them to simply sit and watch, but they ran off, joined in and held hands with strangers! Ballet was something they really really REALLY wanted to do.

Given time, love and a strong ‘rock’, I’ll bet your boys will take off and join in when they are ready.

Christie of Childhood 101:

I think most parents have felt that uncomfortable feeling that their child is acting differently to the social ‘norm’ of a situation. I certainly have. In the case of a class setting, I think our first reaction is usually to try and draw our child in, to encourage them to do what everyone else is doing either verbally or by enthusiastically participating ourselves. Sometimes this works but oftentimes it doesn’t and drawing attention to the situation in front of other people can make an already reluctant child even more self conscious and reluctant to participate. Instead I would suggest;

– Seeing the class or group setting as an opportunity for your children to observe important social learning. Your child will see, hear and learn from your own participation and interactions, as well as those of the other adults and the other children, whether or not they participate in the same way that the other children do.

– Try to catch your child doing the ‘right’ thing, even if it is even the smallest positive change, and positively reinforce their success. For example, your son might nod and smile to himself in response to a question from his swimming teacher. Although you would like him to look at the teacher, his actions show that he is listening and responding to the teacher and that is something that can be acknowledged.

– Whilst playing Immy often reenacts observations she has made in social situations with her toys (especially small figurines). I gave an example in a previous post from when Immy was just two;

Immy and I recently went on a play date with a new group of children we had not previously met. Immy is just two, the other children ranged from 2 1/2- 3 1/2. During the course of the play date, there were a couple of ‘incidents’ involving sharing and turn taking (or rather the absence of it!) amongst the children, which is completely normal for children within this age range. At one stage, Immy and another little boy tussled over a play teapot and Immy had difficult understanding why it wasn’t yet her turn, even though she was saying, “My turn now.” We had a few tears of frustration which are simply a normal part of being two and learning about the world.

Shortly after we got home, I heard Immy saying, “My turn now. Share. You share.” I peeked around the corner and saw her sitting with her two mini dolls in hand acting out what had happened earlier at the play date.

Now at 3, Immy still does this in her play and I have also been known to use this type of play to reinforce social messages with her. For example, Immy is learning to negotiate what to do when another child tries to take an item she is playing with (as an alternative to dissolving into tears) and sometimes I role play strategies, such as words to say, with her figurines as we are playing together.

– As Cath recommended, allowing your sons the opportunity to socialise with other children of similar ages on a more one to one basis can be valuable for their developing social skills.

Do you have any other suggestions for encouraging social and emotional independence in young children?

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  1. Catherine says:

    I have had much the same situation with my sons. And as suggested I let my sons join in or not without applying pressure. I always tried to join in myself to encourage them.
    Now that they are a bit older I can see that my eldest son has a reserved personality and likes to watch and know what to do before joining in. But now that he is older he is quite confident and sociable.
    My youngest is not at all reserved and was simply watching his brother to see how to behave!
    They are both much more extroverted than me. And I think because I am slow to make friends and like to be alone often I worried about it more than I might of otherwise.

  2. My 4 yo has always been shy. I agree that the best things to do are:
    Provide lots of low pressure opportunities to interact with and observe peers in social settings
    Model how to interact, not just with kids but with your own peers
    Let them know that’s it’s ok to just watch and to join in in their own time
    I have definitely had times when I have been concerned that miss 4 is somehow missing out by not joining in, but I now recognise that she is doing what is right for her in her own time. At almost 4 1/2 she’s starting to develop more social confidence in group settings and she has some wonderful close friendships with kids her age

  3. Francesca says:

    Yes, you could be describing my sons. I wonder, therefore, if this might be more a boy thing? My eldest is introverted sure but also seems unsure how to manage many social situations. He’s fine one-on-one.

    Thanks for the great suggestions everyone. And yes, I do feel that we are so anxious for our children to be socially-at-ease as we personally feel it might be a reflection on ourselves. To relax about it has helped me and the boys immeasurably. I don’t get so tense anymore which is better for all of us.

  4. This used to worry me so much with my 2 year-old and continued for several years. I watched him just meltdown or refuse to participate with the other happily playing children and I found it so hard not to see this as a long-term issue he was going to have. However, we kept trying to interact and he went to a preschool (which was difficult at first) and I tried to just be supportive of where he was. Lo and behold, about 6 months ago when he was 4 3/4, he became Mr. Social. He now loves chattering away to strangers and is the first kid at the park to run over and try to join a game. I’d like to think I had something to do with it, but mostly I believe he just needed to develop that desire to interact with his peers. So, for me I would say the most important thing was to have faith that probably work itself out. Good luck!

  5. I have 3 boys (8, 5, 3) and my oldest and youngest are very social and talkative and have always interacted with people easily. My middle child though is much more reserved and can be quite shy. He was very much like your description of your sons up until about age 4 or so. I used to worry a lot until I realised he was just a different personality to the other 2. I don’t force him to do things he is uncomfortable with in social settings, especially as he often likes to observe before he is comfortable enough to interact – which is fair enough. I decided that he needed to learn some basic courtesy though so I had to teach him that when someone says hello to you, you look at them and say hello back. We literally had to practice that as it didn’t come naturally. Saying all that, he started kindy last year and full time school this year and he has been so happy. He has so many friends and is actually quite funny and none of the other mums believe me when I tell them he’s my shy quiet child!

  6. I am inspired to write to your question in between a poopy bum the laundry buzzer (who turned THAT on?) and yup yup even the phone is now ringing! excuse the inarticulateness of my thoughts on this one . . . here goes . . .
    I am all about intuitive , non violent (NVC) Karma and attachment parenting. We sleep together, play together, and literally work together. If a child has all their needs met there is little or no resistance. I figure putting a child into groups when they simply don’t want to is not right. Media has made many scared about not fitting in or not playing well with others. Barring cognitive development issues what ever a child does not want to do within a group is alright. Supporting their emotional responses and giving them emotional language skills is what our job is. Not holding hands in Music class is an obvious response of disapproval on some level. I don’t blame him I don’t wanna hold hands with random folks in a group either. Do you? I suppose one could hold hands with random folks you meet with in a group setting to set the example of desired and expected behaviour is an option.
    As for eye contact maybe you are worried about the instructors opinion instead of the what is going on for your child. Maybe the instructor was from a past life and was terrible mean then. All we know this life ’round is how when we meet someone we sometimes simply don’t groove with them so to speak.
    Bottom line?
    Don’t worry – be happy!

  7. I encourage both of my boys (17 months and almost 7) to try new activities and situations. I couldn’t force my older son to participate in group activities when he was younger than 3 1/2. He just wouldn’t participate; no hand holding, no singing, etc. He wasn’t ready. Don’t worry…he got over that in his own good time. Another mother said not to force my children to socialize with children they are not comfortable with, b/c they have their own reasons for not wanting to connect. Did you ever get a negative vibe from someone and not want to talk to them? My younger son has no problem interacting with anyone and has no fear. He’s the first to jump in the pool and run squealing to new people.

    Be happy they want to hold your hand. They are clearly getting enough of what they need from you!

  8. I teach early childhood music and movement classes for kids from birth to age five. I’m very careful to at the first class to explain to the parents that all children will act differently in class and there is no right or wrong. I tell them that some children will jump right in, some will watch for a few weeks, and some always just observe. Under two year olds will watch me with wide eyes and sometimes their mouth open until they are used to what I do, even when I pass out shakers or scarves, they just want to watch me. They are working very hard observing and learning. I tell parents to be sensitive to their children’s comfort level and be supportive of that. The important thing to me is that they are all listening, regardless if they are sitting in the circle, off to the side with their mom, or toddlers wandering. All of our children approach life and learning differently and I try to get that point across to the parents that come to my class. So no matter how your children are interacting in the class they are learning a lot by observing the teacher, other children, and parents.

  9. My not-at-all introverted munchkin is exactly the same in new situations. Friends and carers who know him well cannot believe he can be so “reserved”, as in environments where he is comfortable, he is usually the life of the party. Unlike other kids his age, he couldn’t stand library story time and would not leave my lap. He refuses to get involved with kids entertainers such as doing actions or clapping along, or with new activities at parties (great fun at an expensive ArtPlay type party – NOT!) As he gets older (he’s now 5), he’s getting better, but we’ve also learned to transition and prepare him better, and expect less of him in a new situation. Sometimes that means being prepared to leave if necessary, or avoiding situations where there is too much noise and too many children. And I deliberately delayed swimming lessons until he was 4 1/2 (he’s caught up in no time!) It just seems some things are too overwhelming for him. I do sometimes wonder if I should have persisted with library story time though???

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