Q: "My daughter, who is almost 6, is very shy at birthday parties given by her friends from kindergarten. She clings to me and won't join in with the others. She has no trouble in class, but she won't play with her classmates outside during recess. She prefers to stand with the teacher. It seems she's best in a one-on-one situation. How can I help her cope with group situations?"
-- A mother of three from Holmdel, N.J.
A: How parents deal with shyness in their kids depends, in part, or what some experts call "ghosts from the nursery."
A telling example of a ghost -- a memory that influences how you react to your child -- is within one mom's letter to Parent to Parent:
"As a child, I was very shy and stayed by myself while I watched other kids play." As she assesses why her daughter plays alone at school, she wonders: "Am I overreacting? Am I going by my experience alone as a child and how painful that was? I don't want to see my 5-year-old go through what I did when I was a kid."
Whether at a party or on the playground, some kids like to watch from the sidelines -- even though they feel at ease in class. They need patient coaching to learn how to warm up to new situations.
"It's regulated and predictable in class, but not on the playground," says noted pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, co-author of "Touchpoints Three to Six" (Perseus, 2001). "Predictability gives the child comfort."
One mother has found that the commotion and noise of a party, recess, or other group activities overwhelm her 4-year-old daughter. "She is labeled as shy, but she is really just uncomfortable in environments that are loud, unstructured and have lots of physical contact," says the mother, from Raleigh, N.C. She's teaching her daughter how to adapt by preparing her in advance, easing her into situations with an adult present and then slowly increasing the time without an adult.
Brazelton endorses a similar philosophy: Accept your child's sensitivity and help her find ways to increase her comfort level. Don't set out to change your child's shy temperament. You won't be able to, he says, and you'll send your child a harmful message: "I don't like you the way you are."
"It's time to help her learn to socialize because she's going to have to make it in school," he says. "One way to make it in school is through another child who is like you. You gradually get comfortable in a crowd, through each other."
Brazelton, founder of the Child Development Unit at Children's Hospital Boston, suggests ways to help your reluctant child enjoy a birthday party:
Prepare the child ahead of time. Reassure her: "I will sit with you until you feel comfortable, but I'd really like for you to venture out into the group."
Prepare the party-givers and ask them to gently urge your daughter into the group.
Help her get to know a couple of other kids who are like her. "Woo another child who is going to that party," he says. "Take them out together and let them get to know each other."
Value whatever's she good at -- drawing, painting, dancing.
Jill Goodwin, a reader from Torrance, Calif., says the girl's teacher may be able to suggest classmates to invite for playdates if the child is unable to come up with names on her own.
"I believe the little girl would be more comfortable playing with her classmates if her mother would have several of the children from her class over to play, one at a time," Goodwin says.
Can you help?
Q: "My 9-year-old stepson is with us every other weekend and five weeks in the summer. My husband and I do not know how to deal with the stories he tells us. He told us his uncle had given him a snake. He told us its name and how big it was. Later he told us his mother had given him a puppy and told us its name and that it's housebroken. We found out there is no snake and there is no puppy. We don't understand this behavior."
-- A concerned stepmother
If you have tips or a question, call toll-free (800) 827-1092, send e-mail to email@example.com or write to Parent to Parent, P.O. Box 4270, Davidson, N.C. 28036.