Q: I took my 14-month-old to a new playgroup last week. All the other children were running around and exploring happily. My son clung to me for dear life. I want to keep attending the group. What do I do?
A: Children approach, take in, and react to the world around them in different ways. We call this their temperament. One aspect of temperament has to do with how a child approaches and reacts to new situations. For example, there are the very flexible children, the “roll with it” types, who eagerly approach new situations as if to say, I’m here. Bring it on! On the other end of the spectrum are children who are cautious and fearful of new situations and need time and support to adjust. These children also tend to get overwhelmed when faced with lots of noise and activity, and often prefer quiet play with just one or two familiar people. Most children fall somewhere in between these two ends of the continuum. One temperament is not better than another—just different. The job for parents is to take the time to understand who their unique child is, and to encourage his strengths while supporting him in areas where he needs help.
It sounds as though you’ve done a great job of tuning in to your child. He has “told” you through his behavior that he finds the playgroup experience difficult and you have read his signals. How you respond is the crucial next step.
While it is hard to see your child struggle or feel anxious, and one natural temptation would be to quit the playgroup, this may not be the most useful choice for either you or your child. As your child grows, he will face many situations that require interacting and getting along with others. This playgroup provides a great opportunity to help your child learn to cope with, adapt to, and ultimately find pleasure in new relationships and experiences.
So, what to do? The short answer is to look for ways to make playgroup more familiar and less scary for your child. Here are some suggestions to consider:
• Between meetings, plan some one-on-one time with another toddler in the group who is easygoing and won’t overwhelm him.
• Arrive at the playgroup early to give your child a chance to explore the environment without a lot of other children around. Sit down and play a little, just you and him.
• Once playgroup gets going, follow your child’s lead and read his signals. If he clings to you, comfort and reassure him. Pick him up and walk around the room. Rather than thrusting him into situations, take things at his speed, explore the toys and talk about what the other children are doing in an upbeat tone that lets him know that this is a good place.
• When your child is getting overwhelmed or distressed, take a walk or go to a quiet room.
• Set up your toys next to another child, encouraging the “side by side” play that is so common for toddlers.
• When you think your child is ready, invite another child and parent to join your play. (Keep in mind it is very common for toddlers to play next to each other—called parallel play—instead of with each other.)
• When your child is happily playing with another youngster, slowly step back.
Until your son has adjusted, you may want to shorten the time you spend at playgroup for a few weeks. Gradually lengthen your stay as he becomes more comfortable. Through small steps like these over several weeks, your child will eventually feel comfortable and secure.