Do you have a child with social anxiety? This picture book written by Mary Jo Hazard is about a young boy that is fearful of initiating conversation with others. His parents encouraged him to “smile and say hi” but he would just run and hide. When upstairs in his room, he got the adventure of a lifetime when a dragon came to visit him and help him become brave in approaching others.
I really enjoyed this book because it can help children who have trouble when meeting new people and also embrace a growth mindset. For adults, it can seem easy to approach others but for children who have social anxiety, this is a very scary endeavor. The dragon in the story helps Michael to become brave and begin to take risks in his social interactions.
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Mary Jo Hazard, MA, MFT, is a retired marriage and family therapist with thirty years of experience working with children. She was a consultant for Brighter Days Montessori School, a therapist at Cedar House (a child abuse treatment center), and a child therapist at Charter Hospital. In 2010, Mary Jo published her first children’s book, The Peacocks of Palos Verdes. She followed the peacock book with Palo’s World, a picture book about a little peacock growing up in the Palos Verdes area, and P is for Palos Verdes, a photo essay of the peninsula’s most famous attractions. Stillwater, her coming-of-age novel, was released on Amazon as a #1 bestseller in July 2020. She is a popular presenter in local preschool and elementary schools and a regular contributor to Peninsula News. She loves living on the Palos Verdes Peninsula—a place with crashing waves, rolling hills, and colorful peacocks in the trees.
Can you tell me about your book, Smile and Say Hi!
Smile and Say Hi is an ideal story for all children, especially those who need a boost of confidence to conquer their fears about returning to school and making friends after the pandemic. It’s a picture book that teaches children an essential social skill in a fun, non-threatening way.
Mike, the protagonist of the story, is a delightful little boy who happens to be remarkably shy. His parents tell him to smile and say hi, but he’s afraid to—that is until one night some dragons swoop into Mike’s room and encourage him to forget his fears and fly with them in the big dragon race. After that, he musters up his courage, joins them, and has the time of his life. The next day on the playground, Mike sees a new girl. Instead of running away, he smiles and says hi, and makes a friend.
What is the significance of the dragon?
Dragons have quite a history. Myths and legends about them are found all over the world. The mystical creatures breathe fire; they have wings and scales and horns and large pointed teeth. Dragons fascinate and excite us and make us tremble with fear. I once wrote an article for the Palos Verdes Pulse about the enchantment of Dragons:
How has your background as a therapist influenced you as a writer?
I drew from my experiences with my children and grandchildren and the hundreds of young people I’ve worked with as a therapist over the past several years when I wrote my three children’s books, especially Smile and Say Hi.
Young children don’t differentiate much between reality and fantasy. They relate to fictional characters and use them as role models in their own lives. Stories inspire and motivate children to change in positive ways. They help young readers develop problem-solving skills. The Dragon King in my book is Mike’s internalization of his father. Mike trusts him, and he’s able to let go of his fear and shyness, take the king’s advice, and soar off into the sky.
Making friends is essential for everyone, but especially for children. Smile and Say Hi is a book that deals with this issue in a fun, positive way.
Although it’s not uncommon for children to suffer from social anxiety, more children than ever are experiencing it because of the pandemic. Young children who were taught remotely during the lockdown couldn’t develop close friendships with classmates. As a result, they don’t know how to make friends or understand their feelings, and they lack problem-solving skills.
What are some good strategies for parents that have children struggling with social anxiety?
The first thing parents should do is discuss the problem with their pediatrician and their child’s teacher. If the problem is severe, parents should seek counseling. Children with social anxiety usually respond well to counseling; even young children can learn relaxation techniques like deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and coping skills.
Make it a habit to read your child books like Smile and Say Hi. Ask your child questions about the characters, have your child roleplay making friends with a favorite stuffed animal in front of a mirror, but most of all, be positive, accepting, and supportive.