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How to help your shy toddler socialise

By Karen Holford 2 min read
Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Q: My 16-month-old daughter is very shy around other toddlers. She’s not very good at playing with or near other kids, but is fine when other adults around. When we go out, she’s fine with us, but seems to get quite upset with other children coming into her space. What can I do?

It’s quite common for some toddlers to be shy or upset when other small children are around. There are lots of reasons why this can happen.

Some children are wired to be super-aware of noise, movement and visual stimuli, and when they are in busy and unpredictable environments, their senses can be overwhelmed. This is quite distressing for them. They can feel safer when there are just adults around, because adults are usually less stimulating than noisy and unpredictable toddlers. They need quieter places to play, with less toys and movement around them, and parents nearby for added security.

Some children are just wired to be introverts and may be naturally shy of other children. When she is older, you can support her to find the best way to deal with social situations. As she has learned to feel safe with you, she may feel less shy of adults.

My confident and extrovert toddler son was also scared of other children in his daycare centre, and when he was a little older, he told us that another child had bitten him one day, probably soon after he started going there. So it may be that she has had a frightening experience with other children, and it is difficult to know whether or not this has happened. She may be too young to understand now, but you can reassure her that these children are safe and kind, and that she can come back to you whenever she needs to.

My older son was extremely shy for many years. We chose not to push him into social situations and to wait until he felt ready and comfortable to get involved with other children. Eventually he did so, in his own time, and he has since thanked us for not forcing him to do what didn’t feel comfortable for him.

Every child is different. Watch and learn what works best for your little girl.

It may help to build her confidence if you invite one child to come and play in your home occasionally. Explain the situation and ask the child’s parent to bring some of the child’s own toys along. Then your daughter could watch the child play from the safety of your own lap, and she can climb down and play with her own toys, alongside her friend, when she is ready.

If you have any worries about her social behaviour, let your doctor know. It can be helpful to make a short video of her interactions with other children to illustrate your concerns.

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Any advice given is general in nature and is not intended as a substitute for medical advice and must not be relied upon as such. For any healthcare advice, always consult a healthcare practitioner.

Karen Holford has masters degrees in child psychology and family therapy, but the best learning about family and relationships has always been from her husband, children and grandchildren. She is the author of "52 Ways to Parent Happy Children".