Smart Answers to Parents’ Toughest Questions

34 Facts Every Parent Needs to Know About Shy and Slow-to-Warm-Up Kids

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They’re quiet in class. They’re hesitant on the playground. And yes, they’re sometimes left out of social activities. Read on to learn more about shy and slow-to-warm-up kids from our panel of experts: Pamela Davis-Kean, Ph.D., professor of developmental psychology at the University of Michigan and author of the book "Socializing Children Through Language"; Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., psychologist and professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine; and Julie King, a parent educator in the San Francisco area and coauthor of the book "How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen".
You want to know about the shy child who sits at the back of the class? He may be an astute observer who has a lot to offer!

Why are some kids slower to warm up than others—and what kinds of situations make them feel uncomfortable or out of place?

“Kids are born with a certain temperament—it can be quiet or loud, or sedentary or active. Some kids are shy or reticent all the time, while others are shy only in certain situations. A child may have a hard time introducing himself to new people, or he may want to participate in an activity but feels anxious.”—Dr. Davis-Kean “A shy kid may be hesitant to ask questions or speak in front of the class, or he may be reluctant to ask for help. Also, a shy child is likely to prefer one-on-one activities with other children or family members to meeting new people or playing with groups of children.”—Dr. Levine “Some kids are just slow to warm up. They prefer to hang back and observe before joining in. But when they finally settle in, they’re fine. Other kids want to join in but may have trouble picking up the unwritten rules of how kids talk and play with others.—Ms. King

Why is it so hard for shy kids to make friends or feel at ease around groups of children? Is there anything parents can do to help?

“One challenge for shy or slow-to-warm-up kids is figuring out how to join in when other kids are playing. We don’t want them to become socially isolated, so it’s important to help them become comfortable enough to spend some time in social situations and to connect with at least one or two other children. These kids might benefit from social-skills groups, which are often run by school psychologists, speech therapists, as well as private therapists.”—Ms. King “A shy child may be more comfortable staying out of the spotlight and not drawing attention to herself, or she may have trouble becoming part of a group and therefore isolate herself from other kids. Other children might think that the shy child is unfriendly, ‘stuck-up,’ or just different. On the other hand, shy children tend to be good observers.”—Dr. Levine “Some children are OK having only one or two really good friends. They may not like hanging out with large groups at recess, or they may prefer to play a game in the computer room with one or two other kids. This is a problem only if the child becomes depressed or internalizes behavior or if he doesn’t want to be with anyone or go to school. That’s when a parent should speak with the school counselor or teacher, or go directly to a mental-health counselor. Also, shy kids can have trouble entering cliques in the elementary school years. If a child would like to be included, you can ask if there’s one person in that clique to talk to and make an entranceway. A parent could say, ‘If you want to be part of that group, let’s think of things you could do.’”—Dr. Davis-Kean