Smart Answers to Parents’ Toughest Questions

40 Ways to Help Your Slow-to-Warm-Up Child Thrive

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Curious, Creative, Caring, and Confident™
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Reserved kids can make friends and be successful without abandoning their inborn nature, according to our 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."
Your guidance and support can help your reticent child gain understanding, friendship, and confidence, paving the way to social success. But remember to take it slowly, watch for cues from your child, and refrain from stepping in.

First, let’s talk about what parents should not do for slow-to-warm-up children. What’s at the top of the list?

“Resist the urge to label your child. Don’t just announce, ‘Jake’s just shy.’ It casts him in a role that may be hard for him to climb out of. And don’t force him to interact if he’s uncomfortable. Let him observe and join in when he’s ready.”—Ms. King “Don’t convey your anxiety to your child, who may see your reaction as a sign of disapproval. If you have one child who is shy and another who is outgoing, don’t make comparisons or put undue pressure on the more reserved sibling—and don’t overschedule a shy child.”—Dr. Levine

Anything else?

“Yes, resist the urge to speak for your child because he will have less reason to speak for himself. Also, don’t make a child feel as though he is disappointing a parent.”—Dr. Levine “Parents may tell shy kids not to be shy, but it doesn’t help to tell a child not to feel what she’s feeling. You might say, ‘I know this can be difficult for you. How can I help?’ Then give her concrete suggestions.”—Dr. Davis-Kean

Let’s talk about those concrete suggestions. What can parents do or say to help kids find their social footing?

“First, help your child connect with peers. Invite another child for an outing that allows the children to interact without pressure, with a trip to a playground, a movie, or making cookies. Most children do well when they have something to do. Second, give your child a way to ease into social situations. For example, before you walk into a party, you might say, ‘When we get in there, do you want to give the present to the birthday girl first—or do you want to start bowling?’ Third, if others ask, ‘What’s wrong with Adam?’, just say, ‘Don’t worry. Adam will join you when he’s ready.’ This puts the child in charge.”—Ms. King “It can be helpful for parents to be open about their own experience with shyness and explain how they overcame it. By acknowledging that being shy is common, then the child feels that it’s not just them. Kids watch you and how you interact. You can say ‘These situations are hard for me, too, but this is how I deal with it.“—Dr. Davis-Kean

Can teachers help, too?

“Teachers often have a good idea of what’s going on socially at school, and they may be able to suggest potential playdates—children who would be a good match for your child. When one of my kids was in preschool, his teacher contacted me and another parent and said, ‘Your kids should have a playdate.’ And sure enough, they hit it off, and the mom and I became very good friends, too!”—Ms. King “Some teachers will take two kids by the hand and say, ‘I want the two of you to go do this together.’ Or they’ll have kids double up for a walk down the hall, which helps them get to know one another. Letting the school know that your child has trouble introducing herself can help as well; a teacher can help integrate your child into the classroom.”—Dr. Davis-Kean

Are there social activities that quieter, more reserved kids might enjoy?

“Try activities that focus on talent rather than personality. Team sports may work because they encourage interaction, but individual sports like tennis and golf are good, too. Also, music can be a good option for children who don’t have extroverted personalities. The social entrance point is that the children share a skill or interest.”—Dr. Davis-Kean “Shy kids may prefer activities in which they are surrounded by other kids but don’t have to do much talking—art, cooking, building a cave with couch pillows, making a marble run out of cardboard tubes and tape, apple picking, collecting acorns in the backyard for no reason at all—in short, any engaging activity in which the kids can work together for a common cause.”—Ms. King