Child Caring

Don't push a toddler to be more social than he can be

I have a 2.5 yr old son.
I am a work at home mom, and my hubby works during the week out of the home, so it's pretty much me and my boy together a lot.
Two questions:
He resists and doesn't really enjoy other children, even though I've tried to get him involved with playgroups or co-op preschool. He seems terrified of other children. He screams bloody murder if he's at the playground and another child wants to climb to the same tower, etc. It's upsetting to other kids, and I feel sad for my son, who genuinely seems to want to reach out, (has interest in other kids), but when he's in the moment he freaks. He seems very very concerned for other kids when they're crying, and always is asking me, "What's he doing?" but also seems worried and says, "he'll take this from me," or "she'll hit me." I always try to answer in a calm and casual way, like, "oh, he might be sad because he stubbed his toe," or, "I don't think she wants to hit/take that from you, she looks like a nice person!" How can I insure that he starts to feel comfy around others? Also, when there's lots of kids (and tons of screaming; concert or fair or spray park), he takes a long time to let me put him down.

From: Sara, Seattle

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Dear Sara ,

Some kids are easily overwhelmed by sensory extremes. Noise. Brightness. Smells. My son hated going to preschool day camp -- and I mean hated! -- because the pool had so much chlorine, the smell bothered him. He told me it was a "stinky pool." Chlorine wasn't what I thought he meant. Once I went, I got it. Next year, I switched to a different camp. We visited to see if the smell was too strong. It wasn't. But he hated the swimming activity anyway. Refused to change into his swimsuit. Turned out, there was an indoor locker room and the sounds of noisy boys created an echo that too much for him. Once we figured that out, the counselor was able to make an accommodation.

Your son isn't all that verbal yet, but he's giving you clear messages that public settings overwhelm him. You have two choices: avoid them (for now -- he may outgrow the tendency; my son did) or support him so he can learn to cope. Probably, you need to do a little of both. Fairs, concerts, spray parks? Just because these things are supposed to be fun for kids, doesn't mean they are fun for little kids or for all kids. Don't go!

Repeat: don't go. Why subject him to the tumult if you know it overwhelms him?

To help him cope, take him to playgrounds at times of the day when there are fewer kids. Do some role playing ahead of time -- use stuffed animals -- around the issues he typically worries about. It sounds like they are personal safety issues -- am I safe? Am I going to get hurt? -- so have two stuffed animals, one bold, one not so bold and play it out, just to give him some ideas. Once there, if he wants to hang on the sidelines with you for a while, encourage that: "You can sit here with me and watch the kids." Some kids just need that transition time before they can plunge into a group. It may even take a few times of watching, even when you are with him, even in peer playgroups. It's OK if he's at the edge of a playgroup, or if he only interacts with the adult, or with one other child. You haven't mentioned what happens when he's with only one child. Have another mom and toddler for a playdate. Help him negotiate it by putting away his favorite toys ahead of time so he doesn't have to share them. That's OK!

The point is for you to not freak out over this. He's only 2 1/2! Don't push him. Give him permission to do this on his own time line.

When going to a place that will be noisy is unavoidable:

Help him anticipate what to expect. "We're going to grandpa's birthday party. There will be a lot of people and noise and singing and music."

Give him coping mechanisms. "We can go in a different room if gets to be too much noise."

Let him know you're his ally. "We don't have to stay long, I know it's hard to be at a loud place."

Because he does eventually warm up to situations, what you're describing is likely a personality tendency: He's slow to warm up. That means he will need help to manage it ("You're a person who like to watch an activity before you join in; you're a person who doesn't like very noisy places.") but also that that he may outgrow as his systems mature. It's also possible it's more than just a tendency. Talk to your pediatrician.

PS. I'll answer your second question another time.