By Lorraine Thomas, Parenting Expert If you want to help your toddler to be less shy, you need to commit to banishing the word 'shy' from your vocabulary. Carole came to see me because her toddler Harry had just started nursery and his social life had really taken off but she was finding it very stressful. “He is much more in demand than I am with a party invitation or play date every week. I was really pleased to begin with. But now I dread them. He’s very sociable at home but refuses to mix with other children when he is out. Instead of playing, he usually goes into meltdown. So do I. What can I do to help him be less shy?”
Every Toddler Is Different
Some toddlers make socialising look easy. They can work the room like a seasoned professional – laughing, chatting and giving high fives. But for lots of toddlers mixing with other children and adults can be overwhelming. If your toddler prefers his own company, he may behave in a range of different ways.
He may cling to you or another adult. He may sit on his own, not talking to anyone but watching everything going on. Or he may be totally disengaged, not making contact, sitting with his back to the room. If he says anything, his nerves may get the better of him and he may be hard to understand. The first step to understanding his behaviour is to recognise that your little one is not behaving badly, he’s struggling to get to grips with a big new social world. And as a parent, you probably know exactly what that’s like. We’ve all been to a dinner or party when we just don’t feel like chatting, especially making an effort with new people when we’d rather be tucked up on the sofa watching Strictly Come Dancing! It is natural for you to want your child to be a good socialiser. You want to see him enjoying being with other children, playing well together and having fun. But the reality is that it takes little ones time to deal with situations they find daunting and time to develop the confidence and social skills they need to handle it. There’s no ‘one shoe fits all’ when it comes to being in with crowd and as a parent you want to develop a tailor-made strategy that suits your unique little person.
Be A Good Mixer Yourself
Think positive. If you go along to a birthday party or your playgroup feeling tense because you are anticipating how he may behave, he’ll feel tense too. Enlist the help of another mum who is going and go along together so that your toddler arrives with a friend. The very best thing you can do to help him is to check out your own behaviour and make sure you’re making a real effort to mix with other mums and dads too. If he sees you chatting to parents and children you don’t know very well, he is much more likely to do it too. Make mixing with other parents a real priority. Get chatting – at parties, at the nursery, in the park and at the supermarket checkout.
Don’t Force Him To Mix And Don’t Call Him Shy
If he really doesn’t want to mix, don’t force him to. Don’t move heaven and earth to get him to say hello. He’s likely to get more upset. Avoid drawing attention to his behaviour and making remarks about it. Whatever you do, don’t compare his behaviour with that of other children. Your toddler is his own little person. You can’t change him – and you wouldn’t want to – let him take socialising at his own pace. He’s got a lot of time to find his way. Commit to banishing the word ‘shy’ from your vocabulary. If you are using the word with him or he hears you telling other parents he is shy, the chances are that he’ll become more withdrawn, not less. You may not even mean to, but it may come across as something negative to him. The more you talk about it and give it a name, the more he may think that there is something wrong with him. And of course there isn’t. Focus instead on what he does well socially and catch him ‘red-handed’ being a good mixer. Praise him at the moment he plays well with a friend and be specific about what he is doing that you like. Look out for any small signs of improvement and draw attention to those. He may not be a social butterfly for the whole two hours, but there will be things he does that show he’s starting to move in the right direction - make sure he knows you’ve noticed them.
Shy To Sociable Toddler
- ‘Shy’ toddlers are very common. It may take your toddler time to have confidence in social situations but there are lots of things you can do to build his self-esteem and help him feel comfortable in a crowd.
- Get down to his level and practise eye-to-eye contact. Be very positive and enthusiastic every time he engages with you. Say to him,”I love to see your smiley eyes.” Get friends and family to do the same with him.
- Listen to him with your eyes and encourage him to be looking into yours when he speaks.
- Organise regular play dates with other toddlers at your home so he can get comfortable there first. You can start with one, and then gradually introduce others so that he gets used to being with a circle of friends, not just one.
- Prepare him for going to a party. Tell him who is going and explain what is going to happen. Toddlers don’t like surprises.
- Help your toddler to mix by doing it together. Instead of saying to him, “Go and play with Rafferty,” say, “Come on, Rafferty looks as though they he’s having fun – let’s go and see what he’s up to.” If he finds a social situation overwhelming, you can help him take the first step and this will help him feel secure and confident.
Final Thought… Be A Party Pooper Occasionally
Family life is about choices. If your toddler finds mixing stressful you don’t have to accept every single invitation. Yes, it’s good for him to have the practise and gradually get used to that whole new toddler social scene – but take it a step at a time. If you say no, be positive about it and go and enjoy special one-to-one time with your little one instead.
Lorraine Thomas is on the Toddle About Panel of Experts. She is the Chief Executive of The Parent Coaching Academy and author of ‘Brilliantly Behaved Toddler’. She runs workshops for working parents with clients including Marks & Spencer, Morgan Stanley, Novartis and Barclays. She is used as a parenting expert by Tesco.