By Claire Lerner and Rebecca Parlakian
Every child is born with his own way of approaching the world. Learn how to help a shy child cope with new people, new experiences, and change in ways that suit their temperament.
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. A shy child 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.
Consider Your Family
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?
Temperament and Children Who Are 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
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 they feel accepted and respected for they are. You support your baby when you help their caregivers understand who they are and what they need. Talk with caregivers about a child’s temperament, how they like to be soothed, what comforts them, and how they prefer to be held. This information is important because it helps your child’s caregivers provide the care they need and deserve, and makes a shy child feel safe with and trust their caregivers.
18 to 36 Months
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 they prefer 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 a shy child 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 a shy 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 they need 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 a 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 them. Ask them 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 themselves.
How to Support a Shy Child
Observe and Learn
Look for patterns in the 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 them? Or when they’re hungry or tired?
- Places. Is the shy 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 their parents whenever meeting a new person immediately fell in love with her new pediatrician who looked a bit like their 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.
Respond 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 them know that you understand. “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, they are 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.
Help a Shy Child Enjoy Social Interaction and Learn Social Skills Through Everyday Experiences
- Make sure the child knows you love and accept them. Respect their needs, when you can. For example, if they don’t like being in big groups, keep 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 a shy 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 Uncle Bob is coming to visit, their friend’s birthday is later that afternoon at the park, or they are moving to the Bluebirds room at child care next week. Letting them know what to expect gives your child a sense of control, which can reduce 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).
Knowing When to Seek Help
What’s Going On With You?
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 them, or that they 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 strengths (e.g., ability to play on their own, or to observe what’s going on around them carefully), and providing support when they need 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.
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.