Early Experiences Matter

Get Connected
Please leave this field empty
why should I register?

FOLLOW US! faceook linktwitter linklinkedin link


Donate - Support Us

Little Kids, Big Questions
is a series of 12 podcasts that translates the research of early childhood development into parenting practices that mothers, fathers and other caregivers can tailor to the needs of their own child and family. Click here to listen to or download the podcasts. This podcast series is generously funded by MetLife Foundation.

Cautious, Slow to Warm Up Temperaments

  Jordan takes his 18-month-old, Ruben, to another child’s birthday party. Ruben resists going into the party room (but peeks in every once in awhile). Jordan coaxes Ruben to enter, but Ruben refuses to sit with the other kids and does not want anything to do with the clown! He just wants to sit on his dad’s lap and watch.  

There are many, many children who are shy or “slow to warm up,” meaning they are uneasy or cautious in new situations or with unfamiliar people. As babies, they didn’t like being held by just anyone; they wanted to be cuddled by only a few special, trusted people. As toddlers, they stay on the “sidelines” for a while, watching what others are doing until they feel comfortable enough to join in. They may have a difficult time with changes like a new child care provider, and protest when a relative they don’t see often offers a big hug.  

Think about:
No two children or families are alike.  Thinking about the following questions can help you adapt and apply the information and strategies below to the unique needs of your child and family.

  • How would you describe your temperament? What’s it like for you to meet new people or deal with a new situation?

  • How are you similar to or different from your child in this way? How do these similarities or differences impact your relationship? 

In this resource, you will find information on:

Browse common parenting questions and challenges on topics such as:

Temperament and Children Who Are to Slow-to-Warm-Up
Every child is born with his own way of approaching the world, which we call “temperament.” A child’s approach to new situations and unfamiliar people is one very important temperament characteristic. The fact is that some children are naturally more comfortable in new situations and jump right in, whereas others are more cautious and need time and support from caring adults to feel safe in unfamiliar situations. At the same time, these children are often very careful observers who learn a lot from what they see, and who may be more inclined to think through situations before they act—an important skill.

Temperament is not something your child chooses, nor is it something that you created. There is not a “right” or “wrong” or “better” or “worse” temperament. But temperament is a very important factor in your child’s development because it shapes the way she experiences and reacts to the world. A child who is cautious and a child who jumps right in are likely to have very different experiences going to your annual family reunion, for example, and will need different kinds of support from you.

Also, keep in mind that cultural expectations play a role in a child’s sociability as there are cultural differences around how “shyness” is valued. For example, in some cultures, shyness is seen as a positive attribute and is encouraged and expected. In others, being more assertive is more highly valued. 

Coping with new people and experiences:
Some children seem to come out of the womb waving hello. Others are more hesitant around people they don’t know, beginning even as young babies. As they grow, these children often prefer to play with just one or two close friends, instead of a large group. Children who are slow to warm up often need time and support from trusted caregivers to feel comfortable interacting in new places or with new people.

Remember that a child’s behavior can vary in different situations. You may find your toddler is very quiet at a friend’s birthday party but is chatty as can be with his grandparents, whom he knows well and adores. Children who are slow to warm up are often very happy playing by themselves or just hanging out with you. Although they may need less, or different, kinds of social interactions, these children are just as happy as their more outgoing peers.

Coping with change:
Young children are known for being inflexible about their routines and are generally not crazy about change. However, some children seem to have an easier time with transitions, are more flexible, and can move from one activity to another more easily than others. Children who are slow to warm up often prefer things to stay the same and are more resistant to trying something new, such as a new babysitter or even a new car seat. It’s not uncommon to hear lots of “No, No, No!s” in these situations. Cautious kids often need time and support before they are ready to make a transition. Routines are especially important and comforting. They help children feel in control of their world.    

What to Expect From Birth to Three  

Birth to 18 Months
Charlie, 4 months, seems to really dislike being held by anyone but his parents and his grandmother who cares for him while his parents are at work. While Charlie’s cousins are happy to be passed from aunty to aunty at family get-togethers, Charlie sobs and arches his back until he is returned to familiar arms.

Beginning at about 8–9 months of age, almost all babies are coping with separation and stranger anxiety. These are important developmental stages that most babies go through and are not the same as shyness. However, it is important to keep in mind that babies who are by nature more slow to warm up, often experience difficulty with separations and may have a harder time being soothed. 

Separations are a big issue at this stage because babies now:

  • Understand that they are their "own person," separate from their parents.

  • Recognize the difference between familiar people and unfamiliar people.

  • Understand that people and things still exist even when out of their sight (object permanence).  You see that your baby understands this concept when she looks for a toy that is hidden in a toy box, or for a ball that has rolled under the couch.  Babies' ability to grasp this idea is why, at this time, they often begin protesting at bedtime, crying out when put to sleep.  They now know that you are still out there somewhere after saying good night, and naturally, want to make you come back!

During this period, babies who previously had separated easily may start to cry and protest more at partings (such as drop-off at child care or bedtime) than they did before. 

You can help reassure your baby by always saying good-bye. Give her a big hug and tell her she is in really good hands.  With a smile, let her know that she will be just fine and you will see her later.  Also, be sure your baby (over one year of age) has a "lovey" or special stuffed animal/blanket to cuddle while you are away.  Although tempting, avoid sneaking out when you have to leave your little one in someone else’s care. Sneaking out sends the message that you think you are doing something wrong by leaving her. This can increase any fearfulness she has about separations and being cared for by others. 

Even at this young age, babies differ in their approach to social situations. Some seem eager to interact with anyone they meet. They coo and babble to the person behind you in the grocery line, and crawl or run up to another mom reading books to her own children at the library. Other babies are more cautious around new people. They don’t seem to like being held or cuddled by people they don’t know well. They cling to you, or hide behind your leg, when meeting someone new. They are slow to warm-up and need time to get adjusted to and feel comfortable with new people.  

It’s important to keep in mind that the goal is not to change your baby’s temperament. It is critical that he feel accepted and respected for who he is. You support your baby when you help his caregivers understand who he is and what he needs. Talk with them about your child’s temperament, how he likes to be soothed, what comforts him, and how he prefers to be held. This information is important because it helps your child’s caregivers provide the care he needs and deserves, and makes your child feel safe with and trust them.     


18 to 36 Months
Pearl, age 27 months, is wearing brand-new pink cowboy boots. She is crazy about them! She proudly struts through the house, showing her family what a “big girl” she has become. However, later that day, when the cashier at the market comments on her boots and asks her to “come here, so I can see them,” Pearl steps quietly behind her mother, turns her head, and doesn’t respond. 

You may see your slow-to-warm-up toddler:

  • Stick close to you when meeting new people or at activities like story hour at the library.

  • Need some time to get comfortable in a new setting, such as a friend’s house or new playground, before she settles in and starts to play.

  • Rarely talk to people he doesn’t know.

  • Prefer to play with you, or have you close while she plays with others.

  • Have a difficult time transitioning to a new caregiver, such as a new babysitter.

  • Appear overwhelmed (cry, protest, want to leave, etc.) in busy, social settings like a mall, playground, or birthday parties.

  • Seem fearful at activities like parent–baby music or gymnastics classes.

Between ages 2–3, as your child starts to play more interactively with other children, you may find that he prefers to play with just one or two other good friends, rather than with a large group. This is very common. Remember, there is no right way to be social. What makes a child happy can be quite different depending on the child. The number of friends a child has is not necessarily an important factor. The quality of the friendship is.

Toddlers who are slow to warm up may also benefit from structured activities to help them transition to playing with others. For example, at the beginning of play time or a party, you may suggest making music (a wooden spoon and pot is perfect) or playing outside in a sandbox. This type of play gives children some time to engage in side-by-side play before getting into more interactive activities. It can also help to schedule playtimes and parties at your home when possible so that your child is somewhere she feels safe, secure, and confident.

Remember—temperament is not destiny. You can respect your child’s slow-to-warm-up nature while helping him learn the skills he needs to adjust to new situations and new people successfully. For example, when you arrive at a new playground where there are lots of children playing, follow your child’s lead and just watch the action for a while. Then, when you see your child feeling more relaxed and interested in what is going on around him, suggest that you push him in the swing or go down the slide with him. Ask him to pick a piece of equipment to explore next. Step by step, with time, you help your child adjust to this new place—and enjoy himself.      


Supporting a Child Who Is Slow-to-Warm-Up:  What You Can Do

Step 1:  Observe and Learn  
Look for patterns in your child’s behavior:

Times.   Are there certain times of day that are harder for your child to make transitions? Are mornings or evenings more difficult for her? Or when she’s hungry or tired?

Places.  Is your child slow to warm up in all settings, or are some more difficult to adjust to than others? For example, some children find it easier to visit another person’s home but are stressed in more busy, crowded places (the mall, a street festival, an amusement park). 

People.  Are there people your child is more cautious with than others? Is he more comfortable with adults or children? Every child is different. For instance, one normally shy child who clung to her parents whenever meeting a new person immediately fell in love with her new pediatrician who looked a bit like her adored grandmother. You never can tell!

Stimulation.  Some children have a tougher time joining in an activity when there is a lot of stimulation: sounds, lights, movement, and so on. A birthday party at a children’s gym—with music blasting, lots of people and activity, in bare feet and touching lots of new textures—might be very overwhelming for a cautious child. In fact, some research has found that being sensitive to textures and sounds is associated with a more fearful temperament (Goldsmith et al., 2006).     Back to Top

What’s Going On With You?

  • How would you describe your temperament? What is it like for you to meet new people or deal with a new situation?

  • How are you similar to or different from your child in this way? How do these similarities or differences impact your relationship?

Tuning in to your own approach to new people and situations is important. If you share a similar temperament with your child, his approach may feel natural and not be of any concern. But for parents who are more outgoing by nature, having a child who is slow to warm up may feel more challenging. You may wish, at times, that your child would not cry when others wanted to hold him, or that he didn’t need quite so much comforting during a joyful, (but loud), holiday dinner.  You may long for the day that your child runs onto the playground and starts exploring, instead of standing at the edge watching the other children for the first 20 minutes. These are all normal feelings. 

What is important to remember is that to nurture your child’s healthy development and self-esteem, your child needs you to accept her for who she is. This means encouraging her strengths (e.g., her ability to play on her own, or to observe what’s going on around her carefully), and providing support when she needs it (visiting and exploring a new class in child care to help her feel comfortable). 

When you notice and appreciate how you and your child are the same, and different, you can modify the way you parent in order to meet your child's individual needs.  This helps your child feel loved, confident, important, and capable.  Your sensitive parenting helps your child know and feel good about himself as he grows and learns.

Step 2:  Respond in a Sensitive and Thoughtful Way Based on Your Best Understanding of the Behavior 

For example, if your young toddler has a difficult time separating at a babysitter’s home or at child care:

Acknowledge your child’s feelings. This lets her know that you understand her. “It is hard for you to say good-bye. You don’t like it when daddy leaves. I understand. Saying good-bye is hard.”

Engage your child in an activity that he enjoys. For example, you might sit on the floor and begin building a block tower with your child, or read part way through a book that you can finish when you reunite. (This can be a helpful strategy in bridging the time between when you part and when you reconnect.) 

Invite another child or caregiver to join you in your activity to help make the transition.  Once the new person has joined, tell your child that you will be leaving shortly: “I will go to work in 5 minutes. Before I go, I will give you a big hug and kiss.”

Be sure to say good-bye. Consider creating a good-bye ritual to share with your toddler. For example, you might give each other kisses in the palms of one another’s hands to “hold” all day long. These kinds of rituals can make separations easier.

Ask a trusted caregiver to stay with your child while you leave. If your child is crying, reassure her and explain what will happen next: “I know you’re sad. You will miss me, and I will miss you. But I need to leave to go to my job. And you will stay here and do your job—learning and playing. Miss Kathy will stay with you and take good care of you. I will come back after naptime to pick you up.”

Avoid lingering or coming back in after you’ve said your good-bye. This can be confusing to your child and make it harder for him to adapt to your absence. It sends the message that you are worried about him, which may make him think there is something to worry about. Your child picks up on your cues. If you act anxious, he is likely to feel anxious too. If you show confidence that you know he will be fine, he is likely to feel more secure and adapt more quickly to the separation.    

Step 3:  Help Your Child Enjoy Social Interaction and Learn Social Skills Through Everyday Experiences

Make sure your child knows you love and accept her. Respect her needs, when you can. For example, if she doesn’t like being in big groups, keep her birthdays small with only a few close friends instead of that big bash with 15 kids and a magician. 

Avoid labels. Telling someone who is slow to warm up to “try not to be so shy” is like saying, “Try not to be yourself.” 

Look for opportunities to build your child’s self-confidence and ability to assert himself. Notice your child’s interests, successes, skills, and milestones. Make time to play together doing things your child enjoys.

Provide comfortable opportunities for developing social skills. These opportunities might include playtime with one or two other children. If your child is in child care, ask your child’s caregiver for recommendations of children who would be well matched with your child.

Make time for your child to warm up to new caregivers. Your child may never be the kid who runs right into the babysitter’s arms as you are going out the door. So plan ahead and make sure you have enough time to help your child get acquainted and comfortable with the caregiver. 

Give notice about new people, events, and places. Let your child know that her Uncle Bob is coming to visit, her friend’s birthday is later that afternoon at the park, or she is moving to the Bluebirds room at child care next week. Letting her know what to expect gives your child a sense of control, which can reduce her anxiety. 

Put what you think your child is feeling into words. “You are watching Marco build the castle with blocks. Want to see if we can join in?”

Provide regular opportunities for social interaction in your home.  Getting together with family and friends gives children an opportunity to practice social skills in a familiar, safe setting.

Read books about friendships. Some good books to share with babies and toddlers include the following: My Friend and I (Lisa Jahn-Clough), Big Al (Andrew Clements), Little Blue and Little Yellow (Leo Lionni), Gossie and Gertie (Olivier Dunrea), My Friends (Taro Gomi), or How Do Dinosaurs Play With Their Friends? (Jane Yolen).       Back to Top

When to Seek Help

If you see your child exhibiting any of the following behaviors, consider seeking the guidance of a trusted health care provider or child development professional to be sure your child’s social development is on track.

  • Doesn't smile back when you smile (by about 4 months).

  • No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles, or other facial expressions (by about 9 months).

  • Does not babble (by about 12 months).

  • No back-and-forth gestures, such as pointing, showing, reaching or waving (by about 12 months).

  • Doesn't show that he knows the name of familiar people or body parts by pointing to or looking at them when they are named (by about 18 months).

  • Poor eye contact.

  • Shows little pleasure in people and/or playful experiences.

(This list, which is not inclusive of all symptoms of social-emotional delay, was compiled from resources available at Mayo Clinic and the First Signs organization.)  

  Common Parenting Questions and Challenges

We’re planning to leave our 6-month-old with a babysitter for the first time while we attend an evening wedding. I’m worried because my daughter doesn’t do very well with new people. How can we prepare her?

You’ve already taken the most important step by tuning in to the fact that your daughter is slow to warm up to new people. Plus, at 6 months babies tend to cling because this is the age when they begin to differentiate between the people they know and those they don’t.

First, have the sitter come over to visit for an hour before your evening out so that she and your daughter can get to know each other in the safety of your presence. This will also give you a chance to talk about how you care for your daughter, including the way she likes to be held and fed, what upsets her, and how to soothe her.

On the night you’re going out, ask the caregiver to come to your house about 30 minutes before you plan to leave, which will give your daughter time to make the transition. When the sitter arrives, sit down with her and your baby for a few minutes and get involved in an activity, such as playing with toys on a floor mat. That way, when you leave, your daughter and the sitter will already be engaged.

When you head out the door, it’s important that you say good-bye. Avoid the temptation to sneak out. Doing so sends the message that you’re doing something wrong by leaving. This may only increase your baby’s anxiety about the separation. Saying good-bye tells your child she can count on you to let her know what to expect. It also means she doesn’t have to worry that you may disappear at any time. Bid your baby farewell with a cheerful tone, smiles, and warm hugs. If you have a worried look on your face and a quivering voice, you are communicating that you are worried and that there must be something wrong. Don’t come back in once you’ve left—for the same reasons.    

My 9-month old and I are in a mommy and me music class, but he’s scared to participate. However, by the end of class, he’s engaged a little bit. Should I keep going?

Stick with it. While some children naturally go with the flow and jump right into new situations, others are slower to warm up. They tend to be more comfortable with one-on-one interaction and can feel easily overwhelmed in a group. Another factor may be your son’s sensitivity to sounds. He may love hearing music at home, but in a class, the noise and movement of the other children may at first be too much for him.

The good news is that kids are very adaptable. Here’s how to help your son feel safe and find great pleasure in new relationships and experiences.

  • Play with musical instruments at home and gradually add different sounds. 

  • Invite another child around your son’s age to come over to play so that he can get used to spending time with others. Ideally the child should be familiar to your son and easygoing. 

  • Give your son opportunities to feel comfortable in groups by attending other organized activities like story time at the library. 

  • If possible, arrive at the music class early to give your child a chance to explore the environment without others around so that he can gradually get comfortable.

  • When in new or group situations, follow your child's lead.  If he clings to you, help him explore from the safety of your arms.  Walk around the room and talk about what's going on.  See if he will join in if he's on your lap.  If he needs a break, go to a quiet area.  If you give him the time and support he needs, he will soon feel safe enough to join the fun.    


My 1-year-old lets other kids take toys from him without protesting at all. Does this mean he is too passive? If so, what should I do about it?
Your son is so young right now that you can’t make assumptions about his reaction. By nature, he may be a laid-back, low-intensity kid and simply may not mind when other children “share” his toy. This doesn’t mean that he won’t become more assertive as he grows and matures. You will likely see him becoming at least a little more possessive as he enters the toddler years and begins to grasp the concept of “mine!”

If you are concerned that his lack of assertiveness is due to a lack of confidence that will limit him as he grows, look for ways to be his coach. When you see he wants something, encourage him to go for it. For example, if he is waiting patiently for a turn on the slide but is letting kids cut in front of him, stand beside him and encourage him to go ahead and take his turn while guiding him to the stairs. When a child takes his toy, you might say, “It’s okay to ask for it back,” and help him work it out with his peer. The idea is to give him the words before he can say them himself.

It’s important to find that delicate balance between being an advocate and fighting your child’s battles for him, which is likely to lead to less self-confidence,
not more. When he is able to play pretend around age 2, you can role-play situations with him to practice being assertive. Let him play the part of both the child whose toy is taken and the one who takes the toy so he can see how both roles feel. With your encouragement, he can begin to expand the skills and strategies that he can use to stand up for himself.    

At a family picnic over the weekend, my 1-year-old met her uncle for the first time. He is tall and has a beard, and she was terrified! She cried when she saw him and wouldn’t play with him or even let him get close. I feel so badly, and I’m not sure what to say to my brother-in-law.

This is indeed an uncomfortable situation but not uncommon. What’s important to communicate to your brother-in-law is that children can have very idiosyncratic responses to people based on the unique way they react to information they take in through their senses. They may have a big reaction to the sound of a person’s voice, their height, or, in this case, a facial feature. To prepare for your next visit, show your daughter photos of all her family members, including her uncle, and use an upbeat and warm tone of voice as you describe the photos. 

Next time you visit with your brother-in-law, engage your daughter in playing one of her favorite games. Then slowly include her uncle. First have him simply watch from a distance. Next, start talking with him. Young children carefully read the cues of their trusted caregivers to figure out if a new person is good and safe. “Uncle Charlie, can you believe how tall this tower is?” Ask him to hand you a block, then ask him to put a block on the tower himself. You can suggest that he try offering your daughter one of her favorite toys or books to read together. Getting to know her uncle in this sensitive and incremental way should help her learn to feel comfortable with him fairly quickly.    

I took my 15-month-old to a new playgroup last week. All of the other children were running around and exploring happily. My child clung to me for dear life. I want to keep attending the group. What do I do?

Children approach, take in, and react to the world around them in many different ways. This is often referred to as their “temperament.” One aspect of temperament has to do with how a child approaches and reacts to new situations. On one end of the continuum, there are the very flexible children, the go-with-the-flow types who eagerly approach any new situation as if to say, “I’m here. Let’s play!” They tend to not only handle but also enjoy a lot of activity going on around them. On the other end of the continuum are the children who are cautious and fearful in new situations, and who need time and support to adjust. These children tend to get overwhelmed when faced with situations in which there is lots of noise and activity, preferring quiet play with just one or two other familiar people. Most children fall somewhere in between. 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 that he finds the playgroup experience difficult and you have sensitively read his cues. He is trusting you with some of his most vulnerable feelings—how you respond is the crucial next step. 

While it is difficult to see your child struggle or feel anxious, and tempting to quit the playgroup, this may not be the most useful choice for either you or your child. (Let’s face it, playgroups are often as much for us moms as they are for the kids!) As your child grows, he will encounter an ever-expanding world of social interaction. His wariness in the playgroup provides you with a great opportunity to help him learn to cope with, adapt to, and ultimately find pleasure in new relationships and experiences.

So, look for ways to make playgroup more familiar and less scary for your child. 

  • Between meetings, plan some one-on-one time with another toddler who is easygoing and won’t overwhelm him. 

  • Try getting to playgroup early to give your child a chance to explore the environment without a lot of other children around. 

  • When you bring him to the playgroup, 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 pace. Explore the toys, and talk about what other children are doing in an upbeat tone that lets him know that this is a good place. If he needs a break, 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 to join your play. 

  • When your child is happily playing with another youngster, slowly take a backseat.

You may need to shorten the time you spend at playgroup for a few weeks and gradually lengthen your stay as your child becomes more comfortable. Through incremental steps like these over several weeks, your child will hopefully feel comfortable and secure. However, if these steps still don’t help, you may want to stop attending for a while, but be sure to find ways for him to interact with other children in an ongoing way and try the playgroup experience again in a few months.

This approach—reading and sensitively responding to your child’s cues—can be helpful in any situation. While you are not changing your child’s temperament, and this shouldn’t be the goal, you are helping him adapt to group situations and fostering in him the resiliency and coping skills that he’ll use to deal with other challenges he confronts as he grows.     

My 15-month-old doesn't like the beginning and ending of our parent–child gym class when everyone uses the shakers and sings. (It is quite loud and he gets upset and cries). Usually I either hold him close or take him out of the room until the song is over. Last time, my mother came with us and said I was spoiling him. What's the right thing to do?

Children take in and respond to information that comes in through their senses in their own way. For some kids, the clap, ring, bang of tiny tot classes are engaging and exciting. For other children, the loud noise and general ruckus can feel scary and overwhelming. Their system does not have the ability to handle that amount of stimulation and they get overwhelmed.

Tuning in to and being sensitive to your child’s individual needs is not spoiling—it is being a good parent. You are teaching him that he can trust you to understand and respect who he is. At the same time, it is important that you help him learn to cope with these kinds of situations, especially as he grows and moves out into the world more and more. 

At home, let him make music on his own. Start off slowly with one sound at a time (perhaps use a shaker from class). Then, add new sounds until your son can enjoy a “home-grown” symphony. When you are in the class, and you know the time for music is coming, help him prepare by letting him know the big sounds will be coming soon and validate his experience: “You don’t like it when the music gets soooo loud. If it gets too loud for you, let me know and I will hold you. We can even cover your ears if that feels better you. When the music is done, you can play.” You can also move a bit away from the group and hold him as you talk about what the group is doing. See if he’d like to use the shakers on his own so that he still feels connected to his friends.   

By respecting your child’s individual needs and sensitively, as well as gradually helping him feel comfortable to participate in this class, you are increasing his ability to engage in future activities and take on new challenges as he grows.     

My sister's son is the same age as mine—16 months—and I want them to be good friends. The only problem is my nephew is a bit more aggressive; he'll run over and grab my son or snatch a toy out of his hand. Now my child is scared of his cousin and runs over to me when he sees him coming! How can I get them to get along?

Ah, the politics of family relationships; so challenging, even when it comes to the smallest members! These situations are best handled by open, respectful communication and collaboration between the adults—in this case, you and your sister. First, begin with the positive:  Tell your sister how eager you are for your kids to become good friends. Then, in a non-judgmental way, share your observations with her. It's important not to sound like you're criticizing her or her son, or she may get defensive. You might tell her that you notice that your children have very different personalities and styles of communicating; your nephew is more assertive, while your son is on the shy side and gets more easily overwhelmed. Ask your sister for her ideas for helping them get along better given these differences.

When you're spending time together, model how you'd like your sister to respond to your nephew without disciplining him or making it seem like he's the bad one.  (It's usually a recipe for disaster when one parent starts disciplining the other's child, unless there is a clear agreement that this is okay.)  For example, when your nephew takes something from your son, playfully chase after him, and perhaps say something like, "Hey big guy, Justin was playing with that! Let's get something for you.  Then help your nephew find something else to play with." This kind of approach, which addresses the behavior but doesn't make the child feel bad, has a better chance of getting the positive results you’re looking for.

When your son runs to you for protection, it's important that you support him and validate his frustration or anger.  But try not to say anything negative about your nephew.  Your son is an expert observer and he will look to you for cues as to how he should feel about his cousin. Try to sound excited and upbeat when you talk about your nephew.

Focus on problem solving by coaching your son about how to handle the situation. You might say something like, "Oh no, did Andrew take your toy? Let's go see if we can get it back."  I bet we can figure this out together.  Then encourage him to use whatever communication skills he has at his age—such as his gestures and sounds—to let his cousin know he wants his toy. Next you can suggest that the three of you search together for a different toy for your nephew. As the kids get older, you can also teach them about taking turns by making a game out of it: Set a kitchen timer for five or ten minutes and have the boys trade toys when the buzzer goes off.

With your support and your sister's cooperation, you will hopefully be able to turn this situation around and help your son learn some important coping and assertiveness skills to boot.         

My 20-month-old is a little shy and doesn’t like to be “smothered” by our very affectionate out-of-town relatives. In fact, when they go to kiss her, she turns her head and runs away. With the holidays approaching, I’m worried that she’ll insult someone who tries to kiss her. How can I teach her to be polite while respecting her need for space?

The fact is that toddlers don’t understand and are not bound by grown-up social do’s and don’ts. Your daughter is just openly expressing her feelings in exactly the way 20-month-olds do—without worrying about the other person’s feelings. But while her behavior is quite normal, it can make for some sticky situations with visiting relatives. 

What can you do? Before their next visit, make a photo book of the relatives she’ll be seeing and look at it often, telling her about each person. Being more familiar with them may help her feel more comfortable when they arrive. Then, either before their visit or upon their arrival, remind your relatives that your daughter simply doesn’t like hugs and kisses right away; she needs to get used to being around them again. It’s not personal, it’s just who she is. Suggest that they take some time to play with her, perhaps engaging her with a favorite toy or book. Encourage them to follow her lead. This will make her feel safe and help her build a strong relationship with them over time. When you normalize her behavior and don’t make a big deal over it, chances are no one else will either. Remember that children look to their parents for cues about new situations and new people. So let your daughter see you give your relatives a big hug and kiss. This lets her know they are loved and trusted by you.     

Both my husband and I are outgoing, very social people, but our 2-year-old is terribly shy. He won’t leave my side at the park or at birthday parties. He also doesnt have many friends at preschool. How did we get such a timid child? What can we do to get him to be more outgoing?

It can be quite challenging to have a child whose personality and way of approaching the world are very different from yours. The good news is that you’ve taken the first and most important step: You have acknowledged the difference, which means you are a good observer of your child, and that you are self-aware. This understanding will help you sensitively nurture your child’s development. This may or may not lead to his becoming more outgoing, but it will help him accept himself, manage his feelings, and adapt more easily to social situations.

The way you are describing your son has to do with what we call “temperament”—a person’s individual way of approaching the world. It’s something we are born with—not something parents create. What is our responsibility as parents is to understand who our child is and to respect and accept his individual needs, not to try to make him into someone we want him to be.  

Your careful and sensitive observation of your son has given you very valuable information about how to best parent him. His behavior is telling you that new situations, and especially those that involve lots of people and activity, feel overwhelming and uncomfortable. This is why he hangs back, doesn’t jump right into the action, and looks for support from you. He is slow to warm up. He needs time to observe and become more familiar with his surroundings in order to feel less anxious and in control of the situation before he is able to join in.

It sounds like your son may be a child who is more comfortable in one-on-one interaction than in large groups. He may prefer to have one or two close friends rather than a whole bunch. What’s important to remember is that there are no specific criteria for happiness; what feels good to one person may be very different for another. It also sounds like for you and your husband, having lots of friends and trying new things may be what brings you pleasure and fulfillment. What makes your son feel content and good about himself may be quite different.  Again, what’s important is your ability to separate your needs from his and to respond sensitively to his cues. What will make him happy is your respect for and acceptance of his individual needs that will let him know you like him, and that he is valued, and loved. This will help him form healthy relationships and give him the confidence to meet new people and try new things as he grows.

At the same time that you are validating and respecting his needs and feelings, there is a lot you can do to help your son adapt to and enjoy social relationships:

  • Prepare him for a new situation.  For example, if he is going to a birthday party, talk with him about it in advance. As he gets older, let him know that you understand that parties can feel difficult for him and make a plan together for how he can manage his feelings. Perhaps arrive a few minutes early to feel comfortable before all of the other kids arrive, or go to the party with a friend he feels safe with so he has a “partner.”
  • Acknowledge his need to stay close to you when he clings for support. Let him sit on your lap.  Talk about what you see happening around you.  Then suggest that togethre you explore.  Check out the games the children are playing.  See if he will take a turn with you by his side.  Or you take a turn first.  If you are at the park, go down the slide together, sit by his side at the sandbox, watch and talk about what the other kids are doing. 

  • Provide lots of opportunities for your son to interact with others.  Find out from his teachers who your son does interact with, or ask them to identify a child they feel would be compatible with him.  Invite him or her over to your home to play.  This will give your child a chance to interact with other children in a less demanding environment and provides the opportunity for you to offer support to your son, for example, by getting a game going among the three of you.

  • The key is to join your child where he is at emotionally, provide the support he needs to feel safe and comfortable, and then help him adapt.   

My 3-year-old is a chatterbox at home, but virtually silent when I take him to play with other kids. It's frustrating. Is he going to have trouble making friends?

You are not alone. Many parents describe similar behavior and share your concern about making friends. The good news is that there is a lot you can do to help your child feel comfortable in new situations and with new people that will help him make good friends as he grows.

You have already taken the first step, which is to be a good observer, tuning in to your child’s behavior and wondering what it means. It likely has to do with his “temperament”—his individual approach to the world that he was born with. While some kids jump right into new situations with gusto, there are many who by nature are more fearful and cautious when in unfamiliar territory. They need more support to feel safe in these situations. So, the second step is to be sensitive to the signals he is sending. This means validating his feelings—that it’s okay to feel unsure around new people, and that you are going to help him learn to feel comfortable making new friends. 

Next, it is important to anticipate the kinds of situations that are challenging for your son and help him prepare. You can take photos of the settings where he is doing different activities and make a little book out of them. Look at them together and talk about what will happen when he goes to these places, what it feels like, and what he can do to feel comfortable and enjoy the experience.

As you prepare to go to a specific activity or event, talk with your son about what is going to happen—where you will be going, who will be there, how he might feel at first. Then brainstorm together what he can do, with your support, to feel safe to engage with others. “There may be a lot of noise and people on the playground. What can you do to feel comfortable there?” It can be very useful to arrive at the location early and give your child a chance to check the place out before others arrive. You might bring a few toys that he is willing to share. Let him stay close to you. Talk about what you see the other kids doing. If there are one or two children engaged in an activity you think your child would enjoy, go over with your son and watch—talk about what they are doing and suggest ways he may get involved too. These kinds of sensitive, incremental steps help your child feel safe to eventually venture out. Once he is engaged in play with others, the language will follow. Play requires a lot of negotiation: who will be the driver, the engineer, the passenger, and so on. 

It will also be very helpful to plan some one-on-one play with another child. This gives him a chance to feel comfortable with others in the safety of his own home.  You want to be close by, not to interfere, but to act as a mediator and coach, suggesting activities they might do together and encouraging your son to share his thoughts and feelings. For example, “Looks like Jackson wants to play with the kitchen. Why don’t you show him how we make food for the animals in your barn.” The idea is to provide “scaffolding”—the support your child needs to take the next step without doing it for him. This builds his confidence both to learn and to form close relationships over the next few years.     

This resource was made possible by generous funding from the Carl and Roberta Deutsch Foundation.

Authors:  Rebecca Parlakian and Claire Lerner, LCSW, ZERO TO THREE

Patricia Blackwell, PhD
Psychologist, Private Practice
ZERO TO THREE Graduate Fellow

Amy Hunter, LICSW



When my 2-year-old gets really angry and has a tantrum, she will bump her head against the wall.
Read More
My three-year-old son has started to play with his penis. How should I handle this?
Read More
Sometimes, when I try to explain to my 35-month-old the reason why we have certain rules she seems to understand and accept it, while other times she has a tantrum. Why is that?
Read More
What should I do when my 2 1/2-year-old won’t share her toys with our 8-month-old?
Read More

Explore our Parenting Resources

Home   |   Careers   |   Permissions   |   Contact Us   |   Tell a Friend   |     |   Privacy Policy

Copyright © 2014 ZERO TO THREE: National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families
1255 23rd Street, NW, Suite 350, Washington, DC 20037 | Phone: (202) 638-1144 | Fax: (202) 638-0851

All rights reserved. For permission to reprint, go to www.zerotothree.org/reprints