Baby development · Being a mom · Charlotte · Family · Parenting

“She just woke up from her nap” and other excuses I make for my daughter’s social anxiety

Y’all, I’ve been dealing with some anxiety. It entered my life about 2.5 years ago. It walks around in the form of a pint sized human. Its name is Charlotte.

If you know Charlie, then you know she can run pretty hot & cold. She doesn’t hide her emotions, and there are oh so many emotions flowing around in that 25 lb toddler. What you see on Facebook isn’t always what you get in ‘real life’. For example…

One-on-one with mommy before the doctor comes in

(even with raging pink eye):


After the doctor comes in:


I’m sure you’ve experienced it when interacting with her. Some times you get smiles and giggles. Many times you get the icy stare. The silent treatment. The cold shoulder. Eyes averted, shoulders slumped or head buried in mommy’s coat. Nobody is safe from it; even daddy receives this reaction sometimes. I usually explain away her behavior with comments like “She’s shy”, “She’s so dramatic”, “She’s two”, or “It’s almost nap time”.

I’d be lying if I said her reservation in social situations didn’t bother me. We all want our children to be outgoing, friendly, polite…. happy. My first response to her unwillingness to interact with others is usually to cringe. I fear, selfishly, that her silence will be perceived as rudeness and her failure to return a wave, answer a question, or even smile at someone is a reflection on my parenting skills. I’m slowly learning, though, that it has nothing to do with my parenting and everything to do with my little one’s ability to cope cope with stressors in her environment. It’s not an intentional reaction from her. It’s not rudeness. It’s not disobedience. It’s not unfriendliness. It is so much more than that.

– In the grocery store, it’s the fearful cry and scramble up my leg when another person starts pushing their cart down the same aisle we’re on. buying their groceries. like you do. at a grocery store.

– On the playground, it’s staying frozen on the stairs if another child gets too close.

– It’s startling and covering her ears when someone opens the front door.

– At her grandparent’s house (whom she sees at least twice a week) it’s the refusal to talk to them or give affection until a ‘warming period’ has passed (usually about 30 minutes).

– In the carpool line at school it’s remaining stoic while the teacher puts her in her car seat, only to come to life and joyfully tell me she had a boogie on her finger as soon as the car door is shut.

– It’s confidence changing abruptly to silence when someone addresses her directly.

I’ve always been confused with her ability to flutter between playful and isolated, between conversational dominance and suddenly refusing interactions altogether. I didn’t understand why she would demonstrate this uber social, outgoing, verbal character at home or in the car with me, but lock it down as soon as the environment or company changed. “It’s just a stage” I’ve heard. And part of it still most likely is. She’s only two. She behaves like a two year old. My mom instincts have been kicking in though, and they let me know this is a bit more than being ‘just two’. I’d be doing her a disservice as her parent if I just let it go and see what happens. I’ve personally struggled with anxiety a little bit throughout my teenage-adult years; occasional therapy to talk it out and coping strategies to work it out have helped me greatly. There are things I can do now to help her so she can cope independently later on.  I’ve been educating myself so I can guide her as wisely as possible.

All children have some stranger anxiety. And separation anxiety is normal at various ages and stages of development. Kids get overwhelmed. They get tired and cranky. They don’t always ‘perform’ in front of others. And this is all normal, to an extent. Children have various temperaments – combinations of characteristics including activity level, adaptability, mood, emotional responses, sensory thresholds, etc. A ‘slow to warm-up’ temperament is not a negative thing, and research actually shows it may also indicate stronger resistance to peer-pressure in the later years. The ‘slow to warm-up’ child typically watches from the sidelines and eases in to interacting with peers and adults at their own pace. That’s Charlotte to a T.

What’s becoming more evident to me, though, is that Charlotte’s ‘slow to warm-up’ temperament is coupled with some true toddler anxiety; it shows itself as hives when we go to the doctor, scratching and pulling at her skin when nervous, night terrors, and extreme emotional responses to things {usually tears and melting into a puddle on the floor} in which she’s difficult to calm down. She’s easily frustrated when things aren’t perfect {her fork won’t stab the blueberry, her hand has a smudge of yogurt on it, her pajama zipper is up too high}; and this mixed with some tactile sensitivities often results in tears or shut-down.  At home with us she is the silliest, most talkative, and creative kiddo. Very few people get to witness that side of her. Her affection is not easily won by outsiders {meaning anyone but mom, dad, or our doggy Baxter}. And I don’t want to change that about her.  But I do want to learn as much as I can about her anxious tendencies so I can help her. Parenting strategies are not ‘one size fits all’ and our actions now will either strengthen her anxious responses to stressful situations or strengthen her self-confidence and coping skills to deal with various stressful situations. I’d prefer the latter. I’d also prefer to just give her a shirt that says “please give me time to warm up”, but I can’t, so instead I’m using these guidelines to help me help her:

1. Hold her.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with holding your child for comfort {or allowing them to cling to your leg}. It’s not coddling them. It’s not feeding into a weakness. It’s not reflecting poorly on you as a parent. It is providing them with a safe, comforting place from which to observe their surroundings, study who is around, what is going on, and allows them to safely begin interactions at their own pace. This is the one I struggle with the most; I think I assume she should continue to be confident and independent in all situations just like she is at home. That’s not the case and I can’t force her to be comfortable in all situations. But I can comfort her and encourage her.

2.  Pick my battles.

If eating broccoli is stressful and being at a birthday party is stressful, then I will not make her eat broccoli while at a birthday party.  We’ll save that for a day at home around the kitchen table. What kind of sick people have broccoli at a birthday party anyway?!

3. Model appropriate social behavior and language.

This one is something I feel I’ve been doing with her since birth since that is what I get paid to do {ahem, my business}, but you can never ‘over-do’ it when it comes to modeling appropriate language and behaviors. For example: A friend comes over for a play-date. Friend says “here Charlotte you have this truck”. Charlotte looks away and ignores him. I model “Thank you for sharing!” or “No thank you”, as well as the appropriate body language for a friendly interaction. I also speak directly to her – “It’s ok if you don’t want that truck” or “I bet we could find another truck and have a race with him”. Then demonstrate playing with said friend. It may seem silly if you aren’t used to that type of over-exaggerated role play, but it can go a long way with helping a kiddo who isn’t able to ‘use their words’ or isn’t exactly thinking of how their ‘social avoidance’ is coming across to their peer.

4. Distract her.

The more she feels the attention on her, the more she will avoid interactions. When in a place that Charlotte is not comfortable {i.e.: anywhere but home for the most part} Chris and I focus on play or engaging in a familiar activity to help alleviate anxiety and reduce the amount of attention placed on her. Chase, I spy, tickles, offer a snack… all serve to distract her, break the ice a little, and show her that this is a safe, fun place and she can enjoy herself.

5. Maintain Routines.

Sometimes she is ‘just tired’ or ‘just hungry’ and for her those needs outweigh the need to maintain social norms by interacting with others. I can help her by not scheduling appointments or activities during nap time and making sure I have food to offer her when she gets ‘hangry’ {anger due to hunger = hangry}.

6. Allow her to respond in her own time and in her own way.

Kids are cute and whenever we run into someone in the outside world {even strangers}, the attention is usually on Charlotte. People touch her, they ask her questions, they get too close … they do what comes naturally when interacting with kids. I’m not saying I’m going to stop people from interacting with her, but I am going to stop feeling bad about her reluctance to interact with them. I usually fight an inner ‘cringe’ moment when she gives a blank stare in return to someone’s friendly greeting. I take it personally when she doesn’t respond in a friendly manner to other people, as if it’s a slap in the face to my parenting skills and my ability to teach my child manners. So I usually give one of the excuses I mentioned before and hope for a better response from her next time. I’m going to stop putting that pressure on her {and on myself}.

7. Give her options and don’t take it personally.

Instead of forcing a particular response {i.e.: “Say hi to ____”}, I’ll suggest appropriate options {“Would you like to say Hi or wave?”}. As adults we gauge the depth of our relationships with one another by the interactions we have {If I kiss you on the lips, we’re married. If I throw a casual wave, you’re just a friend. If I begin to ignore your questions or move to the other side of the room,  that’s signals that I don’t really want to interact with you… and maybe you smell}. We can’t hold our interactions with children to the same standards, though. If Charlotte doesn’t run to you for a hug or won’t laugh at your tickles, it’s not a personal snub or rejection. It may have nothing to do with you at all! She may be overwhelmed, the room may be too noisy, or she may just be processing  her environment. She adores her daddy, but sometimes isn’t able to cuddle with him as soon as he gets home from work {no matter how much he would love that!}. He knows to give her some space and she will eventually initiate play with him. Something my mom loves to say to Charlotte is “Do you have a hug for me”? – that’s a very low pressure way of ‘asking’ for a hug, but allows Charlotte to choose, and many times it’s ‘no’, which is okay! If we attempt to force an interaction she actually seems to take longer to warm up to an environment than if we just let her go at her own pace from the moment we arrive.

8. Praise her.

This is sort of a no-brainer, but it’s important for Chris and I to encourage and praise Charlotte’s social interactions. “I love the way you showed that lady how old you were by holding up 2 fingers”, “You were so brave sliding down that slide with a friend”, “I’m glad you gave Lola a hug, that made her feel so happy”.

Chris and I are working on being more supportive of Charlotte’s emotional needs; whether it’s her ‘just being two’, her ‘slow to warm up’ temperament, or something more; our efforts in helping Charlotte develop the skills to process stressful situations are hopefully laying the groundwork of bravery, self confidence, and self esteem she’ll need later on to build friendships and enjoy life’s interactions, not suffer through them.






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