DIFFICULTY IN SOCIAL SITUATIONS
Lately my 3.5 year old daughter gets very upset whenever we go to family or other social gatherings at other people's homes. Even if she has been to a particular place before she will protest going in to the point that she often gets more and more nervous as we get closer and ends up crying hysterically when we arrive. I have tried everything from being totally supportive and sitting outside with her or carrying her around to being stern and demanding that she stop crying and put on a stiff upper lip. If I am supportive and comforting then she simply continues to monopolize my attention and I spend the entire time alone with her in a spare bedroom over hovering on the outskirts of a BBQ. If I am stern she eventually overcomes her tears but is nervous and unhappy. She is only like this at other people's houses and is relatively sociable and outgoing otherwise. I am wondering if you can recommend to me some options for dealing with her short of sending negative RSVPs for the next several years. I understand feeling nervous in social situations as I am not very outgoing myself, and I want to convey to her that it is ok to feel nervous and ill at ease, but not ok to be antisocial.
My name is Penny Davis and I am part of the panel of people who answer questions sent to the website. I have been a parent educator and counselor for almost thirty years, and am the mother of two grown daughters.
From your letter it sounds to me like this fear of going to others’ homes is relatively new for your daughter. It may or may not be appropriate to ask her about this– you would be the best one to determine her ability to remember - but perhaps even looking back yourself and seeing if you can determine a time when or why things might have changed for her could be helpful. Sometimes things that have little import to us, stick in the minds of little ones and create feelings of anxiety or fear unbeknownst to us. Here is an example from my own life…once while at a birthday party with my eldest daughter who was five at the time, another party-goer accidentally spilled his punch onto the carpet. His mother got very upset and yelled at him. In the following several months my daughter refused to go to three parties and when I finally sat down and gently questioned her about it, she admitted that that experience had made her very worried about spilling something on someone else’s carpet and that she might be embarrassed.
Whether or not the above is the case, you are right – you certainly do not want to send ‘regrets’ to all social invitations for the next 15 years, as that will not be very good training for life. I think you are on the right track – you are trying to be supportive, and also being stern. The trick is putting the best of the two together, so she feels the love and support but also the guidance and limits. You want her to understand that you know that these are difficult situations for her and that you will help her deal with them, and at the same time, you have absolute faith in her ability to get through these tough times and come out stronger. Here are some ways to do that:
1. Plan ahead. Let her know where you are going and how long you will be staying. Make sure to stick to the plan.
2. Ask ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions. “What will make this easier for you?” “What can I do to help you?” “What can you do to make this easier?” “Is there a toy or an animal that you can take that might help you?”
3. Have your own clear limits. If she wants to be carried, that may be ok with you, but you will need to be clear that it will be for 3 minutes or 4 minutes or whatever you decide, and then follow through.
4. It’s important to allow her to have her feelings, and it certainly sounds like you are able to do that. All of us feel nervous, disappointed, sad, etc and you are on the right track in helping her learn the life skill called coping with feelings.
5. Above all, communicate your knowledge that this is a distressing thing she is going through and that you have utmost faith in her ability to figure out how to get through it.
I have faith that with consistency and your continued support, your daughter will move through this. You sound like a very committed mom, and I wish you the best.