Q: My 3 1 /2-year-old gets very silly when he meets new people or sees people he’s only somewhat familiar with. He will start speaking in a silly voice, acting silly, even hurting himself for a laugh. I feel like it’s rooted in social anxiety. How can I help him with it?
A: The first assurance I can give you is that you are not alone in having a silly 3-year-old. An immature person is easily silly — and can you imagine someone more immature than the average 3-year-old? Whether they’re jumping off walls or stomping in puddles, 3-year-olds love the command they are beginning to have over their bodies.
But while their coordination is improving, their interior, emotional life is still so young (especially when it comes to what our culture expects of children). Social niceties, etiquette and a casual back and forth with a parent can be challenging enough, but when it comes to new people? Forget it.
Around the age of 6 or 7 months, children begin to feel comfortable only around those they know well. Why? Humans are designed like this. We are biologically programmed to stay close to those for whom we have developed deep attachments, because how can we feel safe with everyone? If your son felt safe with everyone, from whom would he take his cues? How would his brain orient itself if everyone were equal in perceived safety and guidance? No, the young brain is designed to have fewer and deeper attachments. Your son needs and wants to stay close to you. He is part of a small family so that he can mimic and take on your mannerisms, your way of speaking, your opinions, your way of laughing and your way of seeing the world.
As he matures, he will begin to know his own mind more. This happens at about 7 years old, give or take a year or two. The more sensitive children are, the longer it takes for them to mature, so this silliness could persist longer than you’d prefer. But don’t fret. You can help him along.
First, let’s understand why he gets so excessively silly. When young children don’t feel comfortable,…