Timid children need help with playground Gently, gently: Don't push shy kids to be aggressive

Child Life

instead allow them to learn appropriate assertiveness in controlled settings.

November 19, 1995|By Beverly Mills

My 2-year-old son is easily intimidated by other little kids. When we go to the playground, other kids will take his toys out of his hands, and he won't do anything. He just backs off and expects me to get it back for him. It pains me to see him so sheepish. What should I do?

Maria Grech

Daly City, Calif.

For a timid 2-year-old, the playground can be the toughest turf in town. The best way to help a reluctant child deal with an aggressive playmate is to give him some time to build his social skills in a more relaxed, controlled atmosphere.

There's a good chance this 2-year-old is shy, and that's OK, says Claire B. Kopp, a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif.

"The shy child just needs a little more support from his parents," says Dr. Kopp, author of "Baby Steps: The Whys of Your Child's Behavior in the First Two Years" (W. H. Freeman, $12.95).

Temperament is an inherited characteristic, and while a shy child can learn to be more assertive, Dr. Kopp says, he isn't likely to ever be aggressive.

"The temptation might be to encourage the child to grab his toys back or shout at the offending playmates," says Jeanmarie Ciucci, a reader from Midlothian, Va. "Don't try to instill aggression in a gentle, docile child."

What parents can do is introduce the child to playmates gradually and help him learn how to interact with other children. And the playground probably isn't the best place to do it because parents will feel too much pressure to intervene, Dr. Kopp says.

Parents should consider arranging one-on-one encounters in situations they can control. These intermediate play dates help prepare children for the playground, says Michael Schwartzman, author of "The Anxious Parent" (Fireside, $11).

"I would be very present and shape the event," says Dr. Schwartzman, a psychologist in private practice in New York City. "Have them at a table coloring and then have them purposely exchange crayons."

Ms. Ciucci, the parent from Midlothian, Va., also recommends hand-picking playmates.

"Try to find playmates that suit his gentle personality so that he doesn't always have to look to the mother for rescue," she says. "If she hurries in on his behalf in every toddler grab fest, he'll get the message that he can't handle things for himself."

If a child does get upset, Dr. Schwartzman advises saying: "That's OK. He likes your toy so much he wants to use it. Now let's see what he has that you can play with."

There are times when the playground can't be avoided. When a child is victimized, parents need to intervene. Dr. Kopp recommends having a talk with the aggressive child, but be careful not to make him feel what he's done is absolutely horrible.

"He should be helped to understand that possessions are important, that all of us have things we like and it's important for us to say, 'Please may I have' instead of just grabbing," Dr. Kopp says.

Some parents find that joining a play group where your child will be exposed to the same children week after week, or enrolling him in preschool two mornings a week can make a difference.

It's a good way for the child to hone his social skills, says Donna Luiz, a parent from Oakland, Calif.

Parents can also use story time as a way to teach children how to be more assertive, Dr. Kopp suggests. Pick books featuring a shy character or make up stories.

Several parents who called Child Life find it helpful to role-play with their children before heading out to socialize.

Brandie Bornhoft of Phoenix, Ariz., helped her daughter practice holding on tightly to toys.

"She's 3 1/2 now and is just starting to become assertive about her things," Ms. Bornhoft says.

An out-and-out pep talk just before your child goes out to play is not a good idea.

"That would get the child's antennae up and make him more anxious," Dr. Kopp says.

Can you help?

Here's a new question from a parent who needs your help. If you have tips, or if you have questions of your own, please call our toll-free hot line any time at (800) 827-1092. Or write to Child Life, 2212 The Circle, Raleigh, N.C. Is this normal? "My 3-year-old son is always saying he wants us to hurt him and he wants cars to run him over and things like that," says T. H. of Akron, Ohio. "Is this normal behavior or is it something we should talk to the doctor about or what?"

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