Q: 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 doesn't have many friends at preschool. How did we get such a timid child and what can we do to get him to be more outgoing?
A: 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 are aware of the difference. This knowledge will help you better understand your son’s needs as he grows.
The way you are describing your son has to do with what we call his temperament—his individual way of approaching the world. Temperament is something we are born with, not something parents create. What is our responsibility as parents is to understand who our child is and to accept his individual needs, even when they are very different than our own.
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 in new situations, especially ones that involve lots of people and activity, he feels overwhelmed and uncomfortable. This is why he hangs back, doesn’t jump right in to the action, and looks for support from you. He needs time to watch and become familiar with his surroundings in order to feel more safe and comfortable. Then he’s able to join in.
Like many children who are slow to warm up to new situations and people, your son may be more comfortable in small groups versus larger ones. For example, he may prefer to have one or two close friends over for playtime rather than a whole bunch. What’s important to remember is that there is not one way for a child to be happy. What feels good to one person may be very different for another.
It 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 may be quite different. Separating your needs from his helps you respond sensitively to his cues. It also lets him know he is liked, valued, and loved, which will give him the confidence to try new things as he grows.
Even though your son’s temperament may lean more toward being introverted (or shy), there is a lot you can do to help him enjoy social relationships and develop social skills. Here are some ideas:
Prepare him for new situations. For example, if he is going to a birthday party, talk with him about it in advance. You might arrive a few minutes early so he has a chance to get comfortable in this new place before all the other kids arrive; or, go to the party with a friend he feels safe with so he has a “buddy.” As he gets older, let him know that you understand that parties can feel hard for him and make a plan together for how he can manage his feelings.
Acknowledge his need to stay close to you. Let him sit on your lap and talk about what you see happening around you. Then suggest that you explore together. Check out the games they 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.
Create lots of opportunities for your son to interact with others. Find out from his teachers which children your son enjoys playing with (or who might be compatible with him). Invite them over individually for some one-on-one playtime. This will give your child a chance to interact with friends in a familiar environment.
The key is to join your child where he is at, provide the support he needs to feel safe and comfortable, and then help him adapt.