Dear Family Coach: My daughter, who is just 3, seems to have severe stranger danger and social anxiety. She struggles to use public bathrooms and attend fun activities like storytime. She won't participate, shuts down, clings to me and cries. Everyone looks at me like I beat her. Today we couldn't even coax her into looking at the dentist. I'm at my wits' end. Is this a normal phase, or should I find us a good therapist? — Despondent Dad
Dear Despondent: Being shy isn't necessarily a problem. Some kids just need more time to warm up to new people and situations. Given a period to do so and the right support, most kids can overcome their inhibitions. However, when shyness begins to interfere with the child's daily living activities, it could be cause for concern.
Your daughter's social anxiety and fear of the unfamiliar are likely making it difficult for her to be a little girl and accomplish important milestones for her age. She struggles to distinguish real danger from what is safe. Some stranger danger is healthy. However, when a child doesn't feel safe in public, even with a parent, it's a sign she could use some professional help.
A good child therapist could work very slowly to gain your daughter's trust and then teach her a variety of techniques that could greatly help her navigate upsetting environments in the future. The therapist could also teach you parents how to positively reward the baby steps your daughter will need to take to accomplish her goals. It's unlikely your daughter's anxiety will improve on its own. Get her help now.
Dear Family Coach: We live in a very tight-knit neighborhood where we all look out for one another and have an occasional drink together. Unfortunately, my son can't stand our next-door neighbor's kids, and I can't blame him. It is often awkward when one of the neighbor parents asks us over as a family. How can I stay friendly with the parents when these kids drive my son crazy? — Neighborly Mom
Dear Neighborly: This is an interesting concern, and a surprisingly common one. It sometimes involves neighbors. Other times it's classmates or teammates. Just like adults, kids have people they don't particularly enjoy. However, in life, we sometimes have to deal with people who aren't always enjoyable. We've all had unpleasant co-workers, but we still had to continue showing up for work. We just have to cope and manage frustrations. That ability is learned in childhood.
It's important to let your son know that you feel his pain. It's also fair to try and reduce his exposure to people he doesn't like. For example, maybe you and your neighbors could go out as adults and not involve the children. Or, if your son is old enough, let him stay home from time to time.
Ultimately, though, I'd explain to your son that sometimes unpleasant people are unavoidable, and we have to make the best of it. Try and help him see the good in your neighbor's children (even if it's mere slivers). Seek out some commonalities. Plan activities that limit irritations. It's not easy, and it might not be that fun. But as long as these kids aren't abusive, it's just part of life.
Dr. Catherine Pearlman is the author of "Ignore It! How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction." To write to Dr. Pearlman, send her an email at [email protected] To find out more about Dr. Catherine Pearlman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.