Moomah the Magazine
Too Shy for Playdates

Too Shy for Playdates

-- Dr. Anne Marie Albano 
The Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CUCARD)

With big blue eyes, a mop of curly blonde hair, and a wide smile, Matthew was his mother’s delight!  Quiet, sweet, and sensitive, he was a toddler who loved to cuddle with his parents, and played quietly by himself whenever mom needed time alone to work.  Though at first he clung to his mom’s leg with tears flowing when he was left at preschool for the first time, he quietly went in day after day. According to the teacher, he settled in and began to play with blocks, books and crafts. However, he was always playing alone.  “He’s so lovely and takes care of himself. Sometimes I don’t even know he’s in the classroom!” exclaimed Miss Sue, after the first week of school. Matthew watched the other children, and always seemed to be on the verge of joining in. But instead, he would hang his head and turn away to play alone.  Miss Sue’s comment was reiterated by Matthew's Kindergarten teacher, and heard all the way through to the second grade.  “Adorable, quiet, and entertains himself, but he just isn’t a 'joiner' with the other kids.” This was the common theme heard again and again.

What’s wrong with this picture?

It took Matthew’s parents some time to realize that although he was interested in what the other children were up to, he just wasn’t making the leap and jumping into the mix. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to play with others. In fact, he talked about the other kids all the time when he was at home. For a while, his parents thought that he had made friends. However, it seemed he was simply describing what he had observed, and not what he was participating in.

He played with his older brother just fine. He played with his cousins, and the boy down the hall who grew up with him on the local playground. But he shook his head “NO!” and shied away from school invitations or encouragement from his teachers and parents when suggested to join in. “Hi. This is Daniel’s mom calling, wondering if Matthew would like to come over after school on Thursday for a playdate? I can pick both boys up after school and thought we’d go to the park for a bit, then have them back to our house to swim. Would that be okay?” 

After too many tears, Matthew’s mom made excuse after excuse.  “Oh, I’m sorry, we have a doctor’s appointment that day.”  “Um, I’m afraid that I have to bring him to a music lesson.”  “Ah, well, thank you but we have another engagement that day.”  The excuses went on and Matthew became known as “the shy kid” and “the loner” by his family, as well as at school. This label was given not to blame him or stigmatize him, but rather to explain his behavior. Unfortunately though, labels like this tend to take on a life of their own, and so Matthew began to think of himself as “the quiet and alone guy.”


What’s a parent to do?

Although you feel some anxiety when your little one runs with reckless abandon to climb the playground equipment, you’re also smiling at her, and for her, as she grabs a friend’s hand and laughs her way to the see-saw.  My own mom used to laugh for days at my little brother and his friend Frankie’s stories of “building houses and working with all of construction guys” when they came in from rolling around with their trucks in the dirt. They were imitating what they heard their dad’s do, all the while creating a “work place” for themselves, and doing it together.  Playdates are where kids learn and refine their social skills: inviting, sharing, compromising, comforting, encouraging, talking, asserting, problem solving, the list goes on and on.  When a child is too shy for a playdate, much can be lost in the way of learning skills and building relationships.  There’s much we’ve learned in mental health that shows one major key to positive emotional health and happiness, is having secure friendships and good social support.

And so, Matthew’s parents recognized there was a problem and made a decision to seek help.  His hesitance to engage with others and fear of playdates was assessed by a skilled clinician who determined that he had too much anxiety and worry about what could go wrong, rather than enough resilience and excitement about what could potentially go right!  By intervening early, and yes, even though he struggled through to age 7, Matthew was getting help early enough to learn age-appropriate ways to find his voice and calm his jitters.  Through his therapist and her coaching of his parents, Matthew learned to recognize the range of feelings that he was having. He learned that he was actually interested and curious about other kids, and excited about new possibilities. To identify feelings, Matthew's dad used a large poster board, where they would paste pictures from magazines of different kids’ faces in situations, that were depicting various struggles and emotions.  Matthew labeled each picture with an emotion, from “scared” to “angry” to “disappointed” to “happy” to “frustrated” and so on.  Whenever he felt an emotion, he was able to identify it on the poster which alerted him and his parents.  The next step, after recognizing a feeling such as fear or worry, was to use a new calming skill.  Matthew learned ways to soothe himself when stressed, and his parents joined in to make it a part of his daily routine.  “Belly breathing”, became a morning and evening family activity.  Very simply, while placing his hand over his belly, Matthew was taught to breathe in deeply to “blow up the balloon in the belly” to a slow count of “one, two, three”, and then to pause, think “relax”, and exhale to a slow backward count of “three, two, one.”  This was repeated for 5 to 10 minutes of breathing in and then out, slowly and deeply. 

Most importantly, the therapist and his parents devised ways to encourage Matthew to think more optimistically and to gradually, step by step, approach other kids and accept invitations. Matthew loved the Yankees, and so while watching a game, his dad would question him about “What Derek Jeter is thinking as he steps up to the plate?”  With each Yankee and each swing of the bat…some that connected with the ball and some that didn’t or were caught out... Matthew was encouraged to think realistically about what people think when they are under pressure, being watched by others, and when things don’t go right.  After all, Derek did strike out here and there.  And this helped Matthew to see that his heroes handled being the center of attention and “messing up” without giving up the game.

Finally, through a process called “exposure”, Matthew practiced skills with his therapist and then at home with his parents, like asking for help and sharing in playing games. Then, Matthew was encouraged to practice what he learned in real situations, at school and on the playground.  Step by step, Matthew came out of his shell and extended himself to the other kids. Although this took several months, Matthew’s parents saw his initial hesitancy melt with each new step and activity.  Birthday party invitations were finally accepted.  A Yankees game with the neighbor and his dad turned into a fun day!  And, the teacher’s report began “Matthew is having a good time playing with the other children at rooftime.”  Now, Matthew’s personality is not changed…he is still the sweet, quiet, and cuddly child that he always was (although, he is a little more dirty and sweaty from running around with his pals).  However, he is free to make friendships and find his way in the world with comfort.  That brings a big, big smile to his parents’ faces.


Posted in: Parenting   

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