I vividly remember like it was yesterday when we were getting ready to go to a party with our toddler. We were so excited to get out of the house and to socialize with some other adults and let the kiddos play; however, that didn’t happen. The reality? We had a stage five clinger who wouldn’t go near the other kids.
In all honesty, I was a little bummed, confused and frustrated. That glass of wine and evening of adult conversation while the kids played happily that I had envisioned? Was not happening at all. “Up mama, up mama, up mama,” was all I heard. We were surrounded by kiddos who were happily playing together and our son was saying “bye-bye.” What was happening?
I noticed this happening again and again in various settings. At parties, playgroup, parks, and library story times. When we were at home, at a friend’s house, or in a one-on- one setting, all was fine. But in a large group setting? I had a little koala bear on my hands who wanted NOTHING to do with playing with other kids or giving his parents a break. I knew we couldn’t avoid these situations because story time, playgroup and going to the park is a part of our life, but I had to figure out a way to help with these anxieties and fears my little guy was experiencing.
My husband and I knew that all children have so much to contribute and each have their own unique personalities and gifts to share. I couldn’t get caught up in the comparison game. But truthfully, it was (and still can be) tough at times to watch everyone else’s kids play happily and run right into a game when we sit for 25 minutes watching before feeling comfortable enough to join in. Sometimes that outing was the only one of the morning and one of my (many) goals each day is to tire him out for nap. Sitting on my lap was not setting us up for that!
Prepare for success: Talking it out
We started really working on preparing our son for what we were going to do. We always thought we did a fairly good job of explaining things to him, but we dove in deeper. We follow the less is more approach but knew we had to get into detail for what we might expect where we were going. Not only where we were going, but who would be there, what we would be doing (listening to stories, eating, a party etc.). Letting him know that there could be things like loud music or bright lights, and providing him with simple, straight forward information on what might happen helped set him up for success in a new environment and calmed some of those anxious tendencies.
Choices and beyond
Another very beneficial strategy we tried was to start offering more choices. When we got to a destination and he’d freeze, we’d offer the choice of, “do you want me to carry you or do you want me to hold your hand?” or “should we sit on the ground to listen to the story with the other children or in the chair?” We love babywearing so we got out our Beco Carrier and offered him the choice to “ride with Daddy.”
That offers him the security to be closer to us and have our hands free! Then we started letting our beloved Polar Bear (his favorite stuffed animal friend) come with us everywhere. Polar Bear has been to a Royals game, Deanna Rose, and the zoo just to name a few local destinations. We have a few back-up Polar Bears at home that Grandma got from the Como Zoo in Minnesota if the unforeseen were to happen.
Follow his lead
We’ve really made an effort to follow our son’s cues. I’d ask him if he wanted to sit in my lap or go and play and he typically wanted to sit in my lap. He’d observe until he felt comfortable going to play with his peers or explore at the park. And by following his lead and letting him take it at his pace we all were happier. Sometimes that meant observing for 10 minutes other times it was observing for 45 minutes. It also meant for my husband and I to get up on the playground equipment with him so he felt a little more comfortable. We also started to tell him what we would notice, such as, “you are watching your friends swim in the pool, would you like to join them?”
Play dates and stories
We offer him more social interactions at home or a friend’s home in a one-on- one setting. It gives him the chance to practice his social skills in a comfortable, known environment. There are also a plethora of books out there about friendships, that have been beneficial to read as well like Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni and How do Dinosaurs Play with their Friends by Jane Yolen to name a few.
It can be difficult as parents because we can easily adapt to various situations and when our child is cautious and stuck to us like glue we have to take a step back. But by giving him the unconditional love and support, encouraging his strengths and accepting him for who he is, is exactly what we need to do. Doing this will only help his development and self-esteem.
For now, that means learning how to have my wine and socialize from the sidelines for a little bit!