Shy Toddlers and 5 Ways to Support Their Social Development
Because I have a very clingy 2 year old when it comes to unfamiliar social environments, I was prompted to write this post on shyness and how to support shy toddlers.
It’s normal for toddlers to be shy. What to Expect explains that this is because they have immature social skills and lack social experience. And for some toddlers, they are also genetically predisposed to shyness. Nemours explains that about 20% of people inherit predisposing shyness genes. So, let’s just acknowledge that it is perfectly okay and normal for toddlers to be shy and have a slow to warm up temperament.
And let’s also remember to differentiate between ‘shyness’ and ‘social anxiety’. Social Anxiety Institute explains that shyness is a personality trait, whereas social anxiety disorder is a mental health issue. So while a shy child may also have social anxiety, it is not always the case.
The APA does share though, that up to 30 to 40% of shy children develop social anxiety. So while I see nothing wrong with shyness in and of itself, I am interested in how we as parents can support our shy toddlers, and especially our genetically predisposed shy toddlers, to grow up to feel secure in social situations and confident in their social skills.
5 Ways to Support Shy Toddlers
We have a lot of power as parents to create a supportive social environment for our children. And for particularly shy toddlers, they may need a little extra support. So here are some ways I am supporting my shy toddler’s social development.
1: Decrease Overwhelm in Social Settings
At Parenting Survival shares some great tips on helping shy children. My favorite tip from from her is about setting up social scenarios that will not overwhelm your toddler. Some examples of this include;
- Schedule one on one play dates. One on one hangouts or very small groups can feel less overwhelming, plus some children just prefer smaller play groups. This can help a child work on social skills in a manageable setting.
- Get to a party early so your child can see people come in one by one. Being able to get a feel for who is entering the party may feel less overwhelming, verses walking into a loud and crowded room.
2: Model Prosocial Behavior
Our toddlers are like little sponges who are constantly watching us to learn about behavior. So modeling prosocial behavior can help them adopt this behavior themselves. Some examples of what this might look like include;
- You participate in group activities together (singing, dancing, playing games, etc)
- You socialize at parties or small gatherings together (engage in conversation, help out with food prep, etc)
- You run errands together (eg waiting in line, talking to the grocery store checkout clerk, etc)
3. Support and Encourage Exploration and Independence
The APA recommends backing off a little bit as a parent of a shy child, and letting them operate more independently. So while we want to let our toddlers know that we are available to support them, we also want to encourage their independence and exploration. We can do this in the following ways;
- Help them build their confidence at home first. Let them make choices, teach them how to do simple household tasks and let them practice those tasks independently, and create a safe environment where they can have uninterrupted play time.
- If you see them interested in joining in on group play or exploring something on their own, don’t interfere.
4. Provide Exposure to a Variety of Social Settings
Expose your toddler to places where people gather (eg the zoo, grocery store, post office, retail stores, restaurants, etc). You can hold their hand the whole time and there is not any pressure on their behalf to engage with others in these situations. So it is a very gentle introduction to social settings. They are just becoming familiar with these types of settings while feeling safe.
This one is particularly important, because I think shyness may be less about social skills and more about feelings of insecurity. A toddler may have great social skills at home (eg sharing, listening, communicating, etc), but still feel insecure in social settings and therefore keep those skills hidden. So gentle exposure and letting shy toddlers gain familiarity with social environments outside of the home can help.
5. Dropping the Shy Child Label
Much of shyness is about self-consciousness, so when a child hears over and over that they are shy, this is a label that may stick with them and make them feel even more self-conscious. It leaves very little room for them to grow and develop.
And even young toddlers who are talking much yet can understand a lot! So be mindful of any shyness label you are verbalizing around your toddler. You do not need to justify your toddler’s shyness to anyone with a label.