It was a shocking realization to learn that each of my three sons had extremely different personalities. From birth, each of them exhibited preferences, frustrations and found comfort differently. It seemed odd to me that three children with the same genetics, the same up bringing, and the same environment, could have three completely different personalities emerge from birth.
As they got older, we soon realized that one would choose absolutely anything else than to be the center of attention. He hates to draw attention to himself, is afraid to be different, and an overall rule follower. Our second, on the other hand, doesn’t care who is watching, strives to be different, and tends to look at us as if to say, “What rules?” Our third seems to fall somewhere in the middle. He’s laid back, but also doesn’t let his big brothers push him around. He is assertive yet gentle, and he doesn’t seem to be bothered by attention.
With all their differences, there is one striking similarity between our first and second sons’ personalities: both are uncomfortable in certain social settings, especially with unfamiliar adults. Ultimately they both feel shy, uneasy, and uncomfortable, but express those fears in completely different ways.
One exhibits fight; he gets angry and shows it by hitting, stomping, and showing his “angry face”.
The other defaults to flight; he retreats, hides, and even cries when he’s uncomfortable. He has been known to hide behind my legs, grab onto me tightly, and look at the ground not responding at all to a greeting.
Our brain’s job is to recognize danger and provide a response for our body to those potential threats. Will I rise up or retreat? Fight or flight? Both are responses to similar feelings.
So, how do we, as parents, help our kids cope?
Our job is to teach them and guide them through processing these tough emotions, to arm them with tools to manage stress and uncomfortable situations. Children can to learn to process their emotions, and find socially acceptable responses. Here are some ideas:
- Give them words to express their emotions. Let them know it’s OK to feel scared, frustrated, or shy.
- Provide an alternative to help relieve the pressure. I often suggest my kids give a high-five when greeting strangers.
- Prep them before a social interaction. Before a social interaction with new people, I tend to talk about appropriate responses with my children so they can mentally prepare and create a mental game plan.
- Offer a safe environment to express their concerns and fears. After social encounters, good or bad, we often discuss how it went. We talk about our successes and ways we could improve for next time.
It’s easy to get frustrated when my kids are unkind in social settings, but I try to remind myself that they are still little and have a lot of learning to do. With proper guidance, I have no doubt my children will learn to manage and respond to stress in social settings. With practice and exposure, they can overcome their fears and learn to manage their emotions.
Until then, I will continue to provide a safe, positive environment for them to practice and gain confidence.