You want your child to have an active, happy social life that’s filled with friends, but it looks like your little one might not be up for the task. He shies away from social situations and has trouble making friends. It’s heartbreaking and frustrating to watch your kid struggle with social situations, especially if you’re outgoing yourself. But there’s no reason to worry — the key is to help him work with, rather than against, his natural temperament, says Margaret Hannah, director of the Freedman Center for Child and Family Development and instructor at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. Here are six tips to help kids who are slow to warm up around others.
- Evaluate Your Child
First, take a look at your child. Dr. Mark Smaller, president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, says that some children go through a period of shyness whenever they encounter a developmental transition, such as starting school or taking up a new group activity. However, some kids display shyness as a symptom of a greater problem. “Parents need to evaluate if this is shyness or anxiety across the board,” he says. Signs of anxiety include excessive worrying, nervous movements and problems sleeping. According to Dr. Smaller, don’t hesitate to speak to your child’s doctor or visit a therapist if you have any questions about your child’s shyness.
- Help Your Child “Stretch”
For a child who doesn’t have an anxiety problem, shyness is probably just a normal part of his temperament. In fact, this personality trait can show up as early as infancy. Some children automatically smile at an unfamiliar person or grab a new toy, while others turn away or take a while to warm up. “It’s not something wrong, it’s who they are,” says Hannah. Instead of focusing on “changing” your shy child, Hannah urges parents to reframe it as helping your child “stretch.” Look for opportunities where you can use your child’s natural strengths — such as being a great listener or a creative thinker — to help him grow more comfortable around new people or environments.
- Don’t Force It
Hannah also advises parents not to force their child to engage when he isn’t ready. “Saying something like ‘Don’t be shy, now,’ can actually push your child to back off,” says Hannah. Likewise, labeling your child as “shy” can make him feel like he’s doing something wrong — and this can make him feel even more timid. Instead, create a comfortable environment that lets him develop his social skills naturally. For example, invite new playmates to visit at your house for the first few times, instead of taking your little one to their place.
- Set Up One-on-One Playdates
Most shy children get overwhelmed at playdates with two or three kids. Instead, set up one-on-one playdates with children who have similar interests, advises Hannah. Allow your child to play with some of the toys alone, and then gently try to strike up a conversation between the children by saying something like, “Hey, did you know that Johnny likes boats too?” Then back off and let your child take the lead.
- Prepare Your Child
Before you head off to a new situation or environment, anticipate your child’s uneasy feeling and take some time to prepare him for what to expect, Dr. Smaller advises. Give him some pointers for making friends to help make the situation easier, like finding a similar interest. Remind him of a time when he was in new situation, got through the initial discomfort and actually had fun. You may also want to arrive early to new locations, such as a new school or sports activity, and let your child explore the surroundings by himself before all the other children arrive.
- Let Others Know
Since you won’t be the only one caring for your little one, it’s important to get all of his caregivers on the same page. Tell your nanny that he’s slow to warm up, and ask her to give him time to adjust to a new situation, advises Hannah. You can also give your caregiver pointers on how to help your child adjust, such as having another adult engage him in something and then backing off.
Above all, don’t make your child feel guilty for what comes naturally to him, even if you don’t share the same tendency. As Hannah says, “You want children to be in a place so they can grow and thrive as who they are.”
Rebecca Desfosse is a freelance writer specializing in parenting and family topics.