If you were “shy” growing up, you probably remember hearing things like:
”Don’t be shy.”
”Go play with your friends.”
”You don’t need to sit with me.”
These are common responses when children struggle to leave their parents’ side in new social situations. While these responses come from a place of love and wanting children to have lasting and meaningful relationships with their peers, they aren’t the most helpful.
Shy = slow to warm
Infant mental health expert Dr. Alicia Lieberman helps us see “shy” in a new light.
Instead of saying “shy,” she says “slow to warm.”
“These children tend to stay closer to their parents rather than explore in social settings. Once they adjust, they may take a lot of pleasure in exploring while still keeping an eye out for changes and new things” (Lieberman, 2018).
When we see our children as “slow to warm,” we know that they may need a bit more of our guidance, trust, and opportunity to feel comfortable in social situations.
Shy is not bad
One of the key things we can do is keep the mindset: Shy is not bad.
It’s ok that your child has this temperament.
Parents often feel pressure to push their “shy” children into social settings, which usually leads to both the children and adults feeling uncomfortable.
Just like we, as adults, can take time to adjust, understand our surroundings, and be ready to socialize, so can kids.
So how can we support our “slow to warm” children?
The first thing we can do to support our ‘slow to warm’ children is trust that they will explore when they are ready and feel safe.
We want to respect their need to be with us when they are in new social situations. When they have our support while taking everything in, they will be more likely to feel comfortable than if we tell them, “It’s fine, go play!!!”
We want to let our children know we are there for them and that we trust they will let us know when they feel ready to explore.
“I’m right here. You can stay with me or play with your friends on the slide. Either way, I will be right here if you need me.”
When your ‘slow to warm’ child starts playing with friends and looks comfortable, start with a tiny step back. Don’t say anything, don’t leave them, just move back a little bit. As you notice them feeling comfortable in the new environment, slowly give them more space. If they seem comfortable, let them be, and if they seem like they need more support from you, you are right there.
Remember: If they want to stay close to you when around strangers, THAT’S OK!! As they remain close to you, you can remind them that it’s safe to talk to others when you are there.
Sometimes it can be helpful to start with bringing your child to new situations with fewer people or modifying the situation to make it less overwhelming. As they get more comfortable with these situations, you can start to work your way up to the busier and louder environments as they continue to build up their confidence.
An essential part of supporting “slow to warm” children is giving them opportunities to adventure off independently. Sometimes, it is difficult for children to recognize opportunities to explore in the middle of a large get-together – they may be overwhelmed by the number of people or by whatever is going on.
This might sound like: “Ah, I see the kids playing with the toys over there! I’m going to go over and talk to Aunt Katie. Do you want to come with me, or do you want to play with the kids?”
If your child does decide to go off on their own, use storytelling and narration to describe what happened: “You were nervous to hang out with your friend; you tried it and had fun!”