Q: My 3 1 /2-year-old gets very silly when he meets new people or sees people he’s only somewhat familiar with. He will start speaking in a silly voice, acting silly, even hurting himself for a laugh. I feel like it’s rooted in social anxiety. How can I help him with it?
A: The first assurance I can give you is that you are not alone in having a silly 3-year-old. An immature person is easily silly — and can you imagine someone more immature than the average 3-year-old? Whether they’re jumping off walls or stomping in puddles, 3-year-olds love the command they are beginning to have over their bodies.
But while their coordination is improving, their interior, emotional life is still so young (especially when it comes to what our culture expects of children). Social niceties, etiquette and a casual back and forth with a parent can be challenging enough, but when it comes to new people? Forget it.
Around the age of 6 or 7 months, children begin to feel comfortable only around those they know well. Why? Humans are designed like this. We are biologically programmed to stay close to those for whom we have developed deep attachments, because how can we feel safe with everyone? If your son felt safe with everyone, from whom would he take his cues? How would his brain orient itself if everyone were equal in perceived safety and guidance? No, the young brain is designed to have fewer and deeper attachments. Your son needs and wants to stay close to you. He is part of a small family so that he can mimic and take on your mannerisms, your way of speaking, your opinions, your way of laughing and your way of seeing the world.
As he matures, he will begin to know his own mind more. This happens at about 7 years old, give or take a year or two. The more sensitive children are, the longer it takes for them to mature, so this silliness could persist longer than you’d prefer. But don’t fret. You can help him along.
First, let’s understand why he gets so excessively silly. When young children don’t feel comfortable, their brain begins to panic. (“Oh, my gosh, why is Mom making me talk to this man I don’t know?”) Three-year-olds are not mature enough to turn to their mother and say, “Listen, I don’t know this dude, and he’s really tall, and my language skills are not the best, so, like, can you not push, Mom?” Instead, his panicked brain distracts itself with complete silliness. This is not a conscious decision. Let me repeat that: Your son is not consciously trying to be “bad.”
If we know that his little brain is panicked, what would be the kindest thing to do? Do not formally introduce him, force him to make eye contact, or force him to say hello or introduce himself. You may worry that your son will grow up to be an ingrate unable to navigate a crowd. But rest assured, his social skills are on their way. Instead of placing this burden on him, assume all the social niceties for him. Do all the talking for him, let him stay behind your leg or firmly on your hip, and if the adult goes directly for the child, do some fancy footwork. Strange adult: “So, how old are you, Harry?” You answer for him: “Oh, Harry is 3 and had a wonderful party! Speaking of parties, did you hear about the next school fundraiser?” Just move the conversation along and the attention away from your son.
When interactions are unavoidable (going to a seldom-seen relative or friend’s house), give your son some scripts. As child development psychologist Gordon Neufeld says, this is not a teaching tool as much as it is a workaround for your son’s shyness and immaturity. As time does its work and your son matures, he will get better at meeting people. Until then, you can follow a little script of your own:
“Harry, we are going to Grandma’s house. We don’t see her a lot, so let’s practice smiling.” You walk out of the room and pretend to be Grandma and smile at Harry. If he smiles back, awesome. If he runs, no worries. Just reassure him and move along.
These little scripts and practice scenarios are just priming his young brain, giving him a foothold of safety. They will never be perfect. And don’t forget: You are the parent. It is always your right to tell any adult, “Harry is more comfortable behind my leg.” Don’t ever push your child to make someone else feel comfortable. It is coercive.
Finally, I would place almost all of my money on your son not having a social-anxiety disorder. Shyness is so often misunderstood and pathologized in this country that we will label 3-year-olds as having social anxiety when, in fact, preschoolers are meant to be socially anxious with strangers. We want them to be socially anxious with strangers. Absolutely remove any labels from your mind, as they will only churn your own worries and insecurities. Am I saying that your child won’t grow up to be sensitive and shy? Maybe. I don’t know. But for now, that diagnosis will not help you raise this child. Feel confident that you can protect your child from feeling silly in front of new people. That is what is needed. Good luck.