Shyness, not wanting to go to school and “lack of” friends in school-age children are often sources of concern for both parents and teachers. However, when we look at these phenomena through a developmental lens we can begin to see that they should not be a source of alarm; in fact, they are usually a sign of development moving along just as it should.
My teacher Dr. Gordon Neufeld is fond of saying “What we see affects what we do.” If we see shyness, school protest and few peer friendships as a negative or worrisome state of affairs, we might attempt to organize more playdates and praise the child for times that they are “friendly” and “outgoing.” However if we see shyness, school protest and few peer friendships simply as attachment energy going to the right places we will respond much differently, probably by simply accepting the child as they are and continuing to provide warm connection.
Shyness can be so misunderstood in our culture but it is simply the natural instinct (the degree of it can be influenced by genetics) to resist contact with those to whom we are not attached. Shyness is part of Nature’s design and makes good sense when looked at through the lens of attachment; it is meant to keep us safe and connected to those within our “village of attachment.” Because shyness is not understood by many these days in our very “pro-socialization of children” culture it can be pathologized and is often given the label of “social anxiety.” When shyness is not honored and protected and a child is pushed not to be shy it can lead to a feeling akin to a turtle getting his shell forcibly removed; it is too much, too vulnerable and can lead to increased alarm and frustration.
For some sensitive children (shyness and sensitivity often go hand-in-hand) the simple fact of being in school is almost too much for them– they are apart from their primary attachments, in an often noisy and chaotic environment, with high expectations for interactions with those to whom they are not attached. There are many things parents can do to support their children around going to school. The first would be to reduce all pressure around “being social” and “making friends”; these expectations cause children to feel pressured to be different than they are. When shyness is not honored and protected and a child is pushed not to be shy it can lead to a feeling akin to a turtle getting his shell forcibly removed; it is too much, too vulnerable and can lead to increased alarm and frustration. If a child is connected to their teacher that is really the only person they need to be connected to at school. A warm and intuitive teacher can be your “stand-in” throughout the school day. If your child is not well-connected to their teacher, you might try some “matchmaking”; the act of endearing your child to the teacher and the teacher to your child by speaking fondly about the teacher, making time to connect with the teacher before or after school, and pointing out things you or your child have in common with the teacher.
Another reason children protest going to school, in addition to the pressure to socialize, is simply that they miss their parents. It is hard for young children to hold on to their primary attachments when they are apart from them for many hours. Bridging, the attachment practice of turning our children’s face into connection instead of separation, can be a wonderful way of helping them to hold on to us while apart. Some examples of this practice are to talk about what you will do together that afternoon when getting ready for school in the morning or to put little notes or drawings in your child’s lunch; these help them to stay connected to us throughout the school day.
Finally, some parents fear that their children’s shyness will translate into a life of loneliness and friendlessness. As one mom said: “I worry that my son is so resistant to ANY peer interactions that he will become further isolated and subsequently alienated in this regard.” It is so easy (I do this all the time!) for us to project our child’s current developmental state into the future; when we do this we tend to forget that growing up takes a long time and that things such as making friends are a “fruit” of development (meaning: they happen after a good lot of other development has happened and can’t be rushed). Our young children’s current reality has no bearing on their future ability to make friends and certainly does not mean that they will be lonely and alienated. The truth is that from a developmental perspective friends are not a very important aspect in the life of a 7-year-old; much more important are their attachments to parents and grandparents and their knowing that they have an “unconditional invitation to exist in our presence” exactly as they are (friends or no friends!).