Social Anxiety in Young Kids: “It’s Not My Party and I’ll be Shy If I Want to.”

Posted February 18, 2011 by

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My boys are usually friendly and outgoing. E, who is 5 1/2, is the center of attention at his school and M (age 3) seems to have kids from his class recognizing him all over the place. When they have friends over, they are the ones running the show.  They even say hi to strangers (if we deem them safe enough to talk to).

Then they get invited to a birthday party. One of us attends the party with them and they end up clinging to our sides the entire time and crying when asked to participate in an activity. This has happened more than once.

Just this past weekend, M was invited to a birthday party for one of his friends from school. It was a smaller gathering than the ones he’s been to in the past. He knew most of the kids there. However, as soon as we walked in the door, he was clutching my hand and refused to play with any of the kids. If I left his side for a moment, he got anxious and made sure to follow me wherever I went. The kids were all having fun playing toys and he only wanted me to play with him. Then it came time for decorating cupcakes. He refused to participate until I told him that we could just go home if he didn’t want to take part in the activity. After that, he decided to participate and would only do so if I were sitting right next to him. When we were ready to leave, the birthday boy came over to give him a hug and he got upset that another kid was touching him.

E hasn’t been much of a party participant either, from what I’ve been told by my husband. The only time it didn’t matter as much was when we went to Chuck E. Cheese for a party, as all the kids were playing the games they wanted and participation as a group was not required. I remember other times where he’d want one of us to hold his hand during all the activities, such as at parties where they have parachutes and races.

This also extends to our synagogue. When we go to Shabbat services on Saturday morning, there are groups available for the boys. E cries when I drop him off to be with his same-aged peers, most of whom he knows from the neighborhood. M will not let me leave his side for Tot Shabbat and it takes a Herculean effort to get him to participate in any of the activities on his own. He usually just wants to sit on my lap and turns inward when asked to do anything.

What can I do to extend their school and home outgoing behavior to parties and group settings?


Melissa A. and her husband have 2 young sons, E and M, and a new baby daughter. Melissa's son E has hearing loss and wears a cochlear implant. Melissa works as an administrative assistant for a non-profit and also runs a bullying prevention group and a book-related fan group, in addition to blogging for Empowering Parents. You can check out Melissa’s personal blog here.

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  1. Jennifer Report

    My daughter can be very shy in public settings. I have encouraged her in two ways. (This may not work for your children as all children are different, but at least it’s one story of something that works)

    We leave her in her age church class whether she wants to or not. When she would cry and throw fits, we would only leave her for one hour, now that she is adjusting more, we leave her for both Church and Community times (2 hours total). I also leave her in peer age classes during my weekly Bible study class.

    At parties, I allow her to cling/sit on my lap and encourage her to at least look at whoever is talking, and prompt her with proper responses to questions even when I know she won’t repeat the response. Over time, she has gotten to where she clings for a shorter and shorter period of time.

    We’re not over the shy period yet, but I feel like it is important to continue to train her how to respond appropriately in public/shy situations.

  2. Brittany Roshelle Report

    This is such an important issue for parents. How do you teach your kids to be social when it seems as if it was easy and natural for you when you grew up? Unfortunately, I don’t have any good answers! 🙂

    I do think that leaving E during the services is a good idea since it pushes him a little to interact with others. I think sitting down with both of them separately and asking why they feel anxious at parties or the synagogue is a good idea. If they have any concerns or worries, you’ll be able to reassure them at the very least.

    Also, maybe having a bday party at your house (if you haven’t already) would help them be more confident when it comes to large, group situations. 🙂

  3. Liz Report

    When attending a party, have you tried arriving early, ie being the first to arrive, so that your children don’t have to confront a room full of people, probably being very noisy and boisterous?

  4. Nancy Jo Rose Report

    Melissa, I wonder if it has something to do with them not “running the show” (from your comment) when they are at a birthday party or other group setting. They might be naturally outgoing but less comfortable being in situations where they are just one of many. They seem like well-adjusted boys and I have a feeling they will naturally develop more confidence in these situations with time and more school experiences.

    I wouldn’t worry about this at all! And I would support them in whatever way helps them cope. They’ll grow out of it.



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