Shyness and Introversion In Toddlers

Quite often when we think of toddlerhood, we envision our little ones becoming independent little people, venturing out into the world and becoming social butterflies. However, for some little ones, social situations, new people and foreign environments can be really overwhelming and can cause them to feel anxious, upset and sometimes fearful.

When this happens, you will often here a parent say “oh, they are just shy” or you will see the parent becoming easily frustrated at the little ones lack of communication or interaction. In some cases, this behaviour may very well be a reflection of shyness, however, it may also be a reflection of their personality and as such this little one may be high in the personality trait known as Introversion.

How do we know when to push a little one to interact or when do we “accept” this quietness?

It can be tricky to determine and often this pressure to encourage a little one to speak or be social comes from families and friends. We, of course, want to encourage and motivate our little ones to be polite and engaged, however, I believe it is also important to accept a child’s request for space and allow them to begin to make decisions and choices about when they interact with people, both verbally and physically.

What Is Introversion ?

Introversion is a psychological trait that helps to explain how someone will respond and feel in certain environments. For someone who is seen as high on Introversion, they are often known to be inward, prefer their own company, dislike social situations, focus more on internal thoughts, feelings and moods.

Someone who is low on Introversion will often be the “life of the party”, seek out social situations, dislikes being alone and will often seek out external stimulation.

Common and easily identifiable introversion traits in little ones often include:

High self-awareness

Learns quickly through observation, compared to “doing” things
Quiet and reserved in social situations
Enjoys understanding the “how” and “why’s” as opposed to the “When’s” and “Who’s”
Tends to retreat or become quiet and reserved when in large groups or around new people

This is not to say that Introvert toddlers aren’t social or can’t be!

It just means that your little one may take time to warm up to new environments, however, when feeling secure, safe and comfortable, you will often see them flourish.

So what about Shyness? Aren’t they the same thing?

It is also important to note, that introversion doesn’t always equal shyness. Shyness and Introversion are often interchanged, however, they are seen as two separate, and often very different, traits and responses.

Shyness refers to a behaviour or response to new people or social situations which often leads to tension, discomfort, fear and anxiety. Little ones with intense Shyness may even be fearful and anxious in social situations.

So if you notice your little one preferring to spend time independently, then it is likely they are higher on the Introversion trait, however, if you are beginning to notice your little one becoming anxious and fearful of social situations and new people, it may be that your little one is shy.

While we want our children to be adventurous and social, I think it is also important to be okay with your little one not seeking out these situations.

Some parents will really struggle with encouraging their little ones to speak or engage in social situations and more often than not this can lead to frustration. If your little one is really struggling with social situations, you may like to implement some of the below tools and activities, to help make your little one feel more comfortable.

If you feel your little one may be struggling with separation anxiety, then I would definitely suggest reviewing the blog “Clinginess vs Separation Anxiety” as there are some fantastic suggestions included in there, however, some of the below suggestions may also be helpful.

For the Introverted Toddler

It is important to remember, that just like us adults, little ones will have and want to implement boundaries, whether this be with physical touch or verbal communication.

As most introverts prefer their own company, it is likely that your toddler will prefer to play alone or with only one to two other people and may not enjoy being in crowded areas. It is also normal for your toddler to not want to engage with new people, however, as these new people become more consistent and familiar, you should begin to see your toddler become happier to engage or simply more relaxed in their company.

Current research also suggests that encouraging your toddler and school-aged child to implement physical boundaries now, are the essential building blocks to implementing these boundaries as they get older. Allowing your little one to say “no” to something they are uncomfortable with now, helps to build this confidence as they get older and can help to support and initiate their physical boundaries as a young adult.

It is so incredibly important to support and encourage your little one in allowing them to say no to something they are uncomfortable with, especially when it comes to physical touch and decisions about their body.

When meeting new people, lots of little ones can struggle to verbally communicate their wants, needs and frustrations and sometimes this can lead to meltdowns, hitting, screaming, biting or intensive clinginess. I would encourage parents to prepare their little ones for what they are about to do or who they are about to see. You may like to do this in the car and have conversations about your expectations for their behaviour as well as what the sequence of events are likely to be.

For example, this may be “We are now going over to Jack and Jill’s house. They will be very excited to see you and may want to give you a hug or a kiss. If you don’t want to do that, it is okay! Just make sure you use your words and say “no thank you”.

“Instead of hugging, we could wave or do a Hi5”.

For The Shy Toddler

If you have begun to notice that your little one is beginning to show signs of increase fear or anxiety around new people, it may be useful to begin to slowly introduce new people and situations.

Completely voiding social situations and new people can actually increase your little one’s fear and anxiety, moving at a pace they are comfortable with can be very beneficial.

If your little one automatically shows signs of distress when a new people approach, allow them to simply stand back and watch your interaction first before you involve them.

By you being able to model your calmness and positive interaction with this person, it is likely going to ease your little ones fear an anxiety and allow them to feel more comfortable.

Instead of saying “say hello to ...” you may instead like to say something like “Did you know, Jill/Jack LOVE dinosaurs/dancing/cars/paint?”.

Taking away the forced “hello” situation and turning it into an interaction about your little one's favourite item can be really helpful and allow them to not feel so intimidated and avoids them feeling like they are in the “spotlight”. If your little one doesn’t verbally engage in a conversation with this person, that is okay! As they begin to feel more comfortable you should begin to see a few words pop out when something sparks their interest.

At times, we would often have to remind our little guys to use their words if someone was speaking to them, as they would often look like a deer in the headlights. We would get down to their level and say “remember to use your words”. If they weren't in the mood to interact or if we would tell they were really uncomfortable, we would say “that’s okay, we can chat another day” and move on.

I would also suggest providing your little one with non-verbal communication tools when meeting new people. Waving is a great tool as it doesn’t involve any physical contact and can be done at a distance. If this is your little one’s boundary, that is absolutely fine! However, after some time and if they are comfortable, you may like to encourage a hi-5 as well.

Become okay with the idea that your little one has boundaries and begin to respect these when possible.

Allow and provide time for your little one to “take breaks” when in situations that may be confronting or over-whelming for them. Many shy and introverted people will feel very drained in social situations and over-tiredness can be a huge factor in your little one entering into tantrum mode.

At first, you may only engage in social situations for 5-10 minutes before having some quiet time with your toddler. As they get older, encourage your little one to tell you when they are feeling “overwhelmed” and take along some quiet and independent activities (such as drawing) as a backup. For younger toddlers, they may not yet be able to verbally communicate this with you, so keep an eye out for their normal tired or mounting tantrum cues.

Praise. Praise. Praise! If your little one takes a step and says hello to someone, be really happy for them! This can be an incredibly huge step for little ones who are shy or introverted, and it is likely it took a HUGE amount of effort on their part.

You can say: “I saw you say hello to a new person, I am so proud of you!”
“You played with two new people today, that is amazing!”.

You can also talk about how they felt when playing with someone new and help to identify positive thoughts and feelings and reinforce them.

Debrief with your little one after an event or interaction, whether it be a positive or seemly “negative” experience.

You may like to say something to the effect of “I know you were a bit scared to meet these new people today, however, you did such a great job being kind/using your words/telling mummy and daddy when you had enough”
“I know you were a bit worried about going to this party/event, however, once you met some nice people you had lots of fun, didn’t you?”.

Reflect on the events and try to encourage your little one to talk about the parts they enjoyed. This is also helpful (more so for older toddlers) if you are needing to go into a similar event, you can remind them of a previously positive experience and allow them to feel more secure.

Top Tips

 Allow your little one to say “no” or “stop” when they aren’t comfortable, but encourage verbal communication or waving.
Don’t avoid social situations or new people, however, introduce these at a slow pace
Introduce your little one to new people by telling them that this person enjoys a similar activity
 Role play how you can say hello and goodbye to people when at home
 Take breaks! Social situations can be very draining for shy or introverted toddlers, allow them to have some quiet time when needed and pack a little activity bag as backup
Praise your little one when they engage in social situations or take a step towards this.
Debrief and reflect on the event, focus on the positives and talk about things you can do next time. • Be okay with your little one not being the life of the party and be their backup if they are uncomfortable in a situation.

Matt Camps