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Toddler Social Anxiety: 2 year old afraid of other children

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Dr. Laura,

My 28 month old is at home with me full time. She is an only child and she doesn't have any steady playmates her own age, although I do take her to a weekly toddler music class and other mommy & me events. The second that another child enters the room you see her tense up and she stops playing and asks for me to hold her or worse will leap sometimes painfully into my lap for me to 'save' her. She is starting to enter the age of pretend play and I just know in my heart that if she could get over this fear she would have a lot of fun playing with another mellow little girl.

I have been attending this "caring for your toddler" class that is hosted by a child development expert. He observed her throughout the class (which has now ended) and in the last class recommended that I both attempt to get her out of my lap by encouraging her to sit next to me instead of on me and also that I put her into daycare part time because as long as i am around she is never going to interact with other children. He also indicated that if something doesn't change she will start missing out on some important developmental milestones.

This daycare idea terrifies me as I do not see her doing well at all in a daycare setting. I could see her just being in a total panic and clinging onto the care provider as my replacement. Now I am reading online that some people believe this approach to do more harm than good because as soon as another child is mean to her (guaranteed to happen in daycare!) it will confirm her fears of other children and make it worse. I suffer from social anxiety myself so it doesn't help that I know exactly how she feels and know that it probably came genetically from me. I feel desperate to help her but i don't want to do anything to make it worse. What should I do?

Thank you!


I agree with you that this is probably an inherited predisposition to social anxiety, although many toddlers are exhibiting some social anxiety these days because the covid pandemic has limited their exposure to other children. I also agree with the child development expert that if your daughter continues to be ruled by this anxiety she will begin to lose out on some age-appropriate developmental tasks.

However, I disagree with his solution. It sounds to me akin to saying "She needs to learn to swim. When you're there, she won't learn to swim because she clings to you while you take her in the water. So drop her in the pool so she'll learn to swim." In fact, if you took her with you into the water every single day, sooner or later she would relax in the water.

The most recent research on anxiety suggests that avoiding the things that make us anxious worsens the anxiety. Instead, we need to feel the fear and do it anyway. In other words, we need to reassure ourselves that it's okay to feel anxious, and that we can handle the situation. This is true for kids as well as adults. But toddlers need to know they have a special adult there, who has their back; that's age-appropriate for all toddlers. So I do suggest that you help your daughter confront her fears, but not by sending her off to daycare without you.

Here are six steps that will help your child gradually learn to manage the anxiety she feels in social situations.

1. Expose your daughter daily to other children so that she begins to relax around them. Go to the playground and watch other children with her. Describe what they're doing and express curiosity and delight. If she seems frightened, reassure her. Tell her that she is safe and you are going to stay with her. 

2. Make it a priority to meet some other moms who have kids the same age and hang with them regularly. Sooner or later your daughter will begin to engage, as she sees these same kids every week. Seeing the same kids over and over will help her to feel more secure with them. If this can happen at her own home where she feels safe, that's best of all. 

3. Eventually you'll be able to set up one-on-one playdates in your own home, which will be less anxiety-producing for her than a group situation. She might be more relaxed with kids who are either older or younger than she is, so you can experiment to see. Anyplace she is willing to begin is good.

4. Your daughter is frightened of other kids but that doesn't mean she isn't interested in friendships. She's just afraid that she can't handle what other kids might do. So I would start a "campaign" to read her books about toddler and preschool friendships, to help her understand that there's some reward to connecting with other kids, even if it's scary.

5. Play will also help your daughter begin to access her fear and express it. Since giggling releases the same anxieties that crying does, play games with her that get her giggling. NOT tickling, since that is a physiological response and probably doesn't actually release stress hormones. Go for any kind of play other than tickling that gets her giggling, with as much warmth as possible. Play bucking bronco with her on your back, giggling as you scrabble around the room on all fours, trying to toss her off. Toss her in the air, or play airplane and zoom her wildly around the house. I'm suggesting this because anything that helps her encounter mild fear (in a safe way) and overcome it is good for her, and laughter is nature's way of helping kids (and adults) process mild anxiety. 

Separation games are also important for her. One game is "Please Don't Leave Me." When you have been reading to her and she starts to get off your lap, pull her back to you and tell her how much you love holding her, and please don't go away from you ever and you want to hold her always. Keep your voice light and playful rather than needy so she feels free to pull away, and keep scooping her back to you and begging her to stay. The point of this is to convince her that you will always be there for backup if she needs you. Again, go for giggles.

Another game is a simple version of Hide and Seek that triggers just a little separation anxiety, just enough to get her giggling. Say "I'm going to play bye-bye. If you want me, yell Peanut Butter" (or whatever she would think is funny.) Then hide behind the couch, or the door, for just a moment before YOU yell "Peanut Butter" and run out, and hug her. Say "I missed you! Ok, let me try that again." and go hide again. Again, come back out before she yells for you, which should get her giggling, especially if you play-act being silly and excessively worried. Keep playing this, letting her yell or you yell, as long as she is giggling, to surface her anxieties about staying connected to you.

Sometimes when children have stuffed a lot of fear, they can get very serious and find it harder to giggle, so don't give up. Notice what makes her laugh and do more of it, no matter how silly it is. The more giggling the better to help her let up all that fear.

6. Finally, help her work directly on her fears of other kids. Pick her favorite class, so she's motivated. For instance, maybe the library story hour. Make it something she wants to do but that you aren't totally invested in, because it may not work out for awhile!

Tell her in advance that she cannot sit on your lap, but that she needs to sit NEXT to you there. Practice it at home. If she protests, reassure her that you will be next to her -- but say very clearly that she must sit next to you, not on you. If that makes her cry, or makes her angry, that's fine -- she needs to show you her terror about this. That will actually help diminish the fear she feels in that situation.

Tell her that it's okay to be frightened, and you will help her. If she gets worried, she can tell you, and you will go outside the library and hug her, and then go back in. I'm hoping she is old enough to understand this discussion, but you should also demonstrate it by acting it out with stuffed animals. Your goal at home when you discuss this is actually to get her crying about this in advance, to let out some of that anxiety. You don't actually care if you make it to story hour at all. Your goal is to give her a chance to get in touch with that fear and move through it. So just keep reminding her that when you go it will be so much fun and she will sit NEXT to you, not on you, so that she gets a chance (in advance) to cling to you and cry about it. Sooner or later, the crying and clinging will diminish.

Even if that day when she finally seems comfortable with your library plan is not the right day for story hour, you probably want to put her in the car and head for the library. Again, she may melt down in the car. Stop the car and hold her, just as you did at home. The goal is to help her feel safe enough to express the feelings, so they aren't all locked up inside her as anxiety. (This is a bit like when a therapist helps a plane-phobic person get on an airplane. The work goes on for a long time before they get near a plane.)

Eventually, you will be able to walk in the library, or even get to the story hour. Stick to the "rule" that at the library she sits NEXT to you. Remind her that it is okay to be afraid  -- in fact, it is normal to feel anxious -- but she can handle it and you will help her.

She will be enormously proud of herself when she is actually able to do this.

And after she masters this at the library, she will gradually be able to do the same thing at other classes.

This is a lot of work, and you will have to make it the focus of your life for a year or so, I imagine. But helping your daughter address her fear in this way will help her gradually become more comfortable about going into social situations. It's time well-spent, so you end up with a confident little girl. Good luck! 

Dr. Laura

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