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Shy toddler boy clinging to his mother

Helping Your Super-Shy and Scared-of-Strangers Toddler

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I’ve searched your advice columns and I don’t think I’ve found any information on how to parent a super shy toddler (feel free to direct me if I missed an article). My daughter is almost 22 months old and such a confident, spunky, and talkative toddler at home. She has always been super interactive with us and has an incredible vocabulary. She started with stranger anxiety around 8 months old. Her doctor said it was very typical and he said we had nothing to worry about and of course, “she’ll grow out of it”. At this age, he’s still not concerned.

But, here we are: still incredibly scared of strangers at 22 months. I want to stress that going out in public and being in crowds is not a problem for her. She even does great at airports and on planes (we travel a lot and she’s an excellent traveler). The problem occurs if a stranger approaches us and starts talking to her or even me. She buries her head in my shoulder and closes her eyes. Sometimes, if I’m talking to them, she’ll start hitting me in the face as if she’s trying to get me to stop. As soon as they step away, she pops back up and asks to get down to walk, happy as a clam.

We were going to Gymboree a few times a week and it always took her about 10-15 minutes to warm up there and then she’d enjoy herself and not want to leave. However, recently, she doesn’t even want to go in the door and as I walk her in, she’s forcing her way back out. I can’t think of any traumatic events happening to her there, but she hates it now.

Story time at the library isn’t as bad. She will participate for the first ten minutes singing the songs, doing all the gestures (clapping, peek-a-boo, etc.), but then chooses not to be in the circle with the other children, so I don’t press it. She’d rather be running around the library looking at books and exploring.

Birthday parties are a disaster. She clings to me and I can tell she gets really uncomfortable, so we always end up leaving early or my husband and I take turns getting her away from the crowds. Playdates are hit or miss and depend on the other parent’s personality (loud vs. quiet). Playgrounds are usually where she’s the most confident since there’s less chance that someone will “get in her space”. We never force her to say “hi” to strangers, but when they walk away, she always perks up and say, “bye-bye” as if she’s happy that they are leaving her alone.

We don’t live near relatives, but when we visit them, it takes her a day to warm up and then she’ll be fine and let them hold her. She’s spent hours alone with my mother-in-law and had a great time. She went through some separation anxiety with me but is past that now and isn’t clingy at all. She hasn’t had any babysitters yet and I forgot to mention I’m a stay at home parent, so she doesn’t go to daycare.

So, my questions:

1. Should I be worried about her lack of social skills around other children at this age? She’s not as afraid of them as she is adults, but she doesn’t run to them and interact as I see other children her age doing and she does get uncomfortable if they get in her space. She will parallel play at times, but she seems indifferent to other children.

2. Also, what can I do to help her develop coping skills? I don’t want to change her into a social butterfly – that’s not who she is – but I do want her to be able to enjoy life with others around. We really want her to start preschool in a year and I want to do all I can now to help her with that transition.

3. Finally, any concerns or red flags I should be on the lookout for? Does this sound like atypical shyness?

This is been so hard on us as parents because we don’t know anyone else with a toddler who acts like this. People call her shy in front of her and I hate that because it places a label on her. I try to explain to them that it takes a while for her to warm up around others and I tell her that it’s okay and I understand how she feels. Many strangers get offended and just walk away from us with a frown and I don’t want her to sense that rejection. Because she’s not too keen to be around our friends, I’m starting to feel isolated from others. I can’t even carry a conversation with another parents at story time because it upsets her so much and I’m at a place where I really want to start making some lifelong mom friends, but can’t!

Thank you so much!

Worried and Lonely

Normal! Normal normal normal.

And you don’t have to take my word for it: Here’s an excellent piece on stranger anxiety from What To Expect and a more in-depth take on toddlers with the “slow to warm up” temperament from Zero To Three.

Separation Anxiety versus Stranger Anxiety

Separation anxiety (which is usually limited to parents or primary caregivers) typically crops up around eight months (like it did for you), while stranger anxiety — a more generalized fear of ANYONE who isn’t a parent and ANYPLACE that isn’t home — is very common in toddlers over a year old. And it USUALLY settles down around 24 months. So like All Things Toddler, it’s important to remember that how things are right now is not how things will always be. You will make friends. So will your daughter!

Follow your Toddler’s Temperament

That said, you’re also likely correct that your daughter might not burst from her shyness cocoon on the morning of her second birthday and suddenly be a super extroverted social butterfly. And that’s fine! And that’s where I really like the advice from the Zero To Three piece, which is about addressing the very real-to-her anxiety while still honoring your child’s temperament. It’s okay to skip the birthday parties and Gymboree, for now. It’s okay to skip things that are genuinely overwhelming and upsetting to her, for now. Days spent happily running around playgrounds with the occasional parallel play in the sandbox or swings are absolutely fabulous and perfectly developmentally appropriate for her, for now.

Also, this:

“Children who are slow to warm up are often very happy playing by themselves or just hanging out with you. Although they may need less, or different, kinds of social interactions, these children are just as happy as their more outgoing peers.”

Toddlers Need Help with Transitions

If the event of an unavoidable-yet-triggering situation, like visiting family she hasn’t seen in awhile or the eventual use of a babysitter (which I would actually recommend you consider, since it will be good for her AND for you), accept that she WILL need lots of extra time to make the transition. This is also super normal, since routines are so very important to young toddlers — routines help them process and predict our confusing world — and some kids just have a tougher time with disruptions to their routine or moving from one activity/place/person to another. (All three of my children struggled/still struggle with transitions and routine shake-ups, so it’s absolutely not a neurotypical/atypical distinction. It’s just part of being a small person in a big world!)

Ideas for Helping Toddlers with their Routines

1. Talk to her about everything that’s going to happen.  Show her photos of the people she’ll see or places you’re going to. Give her five- and 10-minute warnings about any transitions you anticipate might be difficult for her (i.e. you are going to leave, someone new is going to arrive, etc.). Have a “goodbye” routine and don’t drag out the moment of separation any longer than you have to.

2. You can also try a visual schedule for your regular days with her, like they use in preschools, using pictures/photos/clip-art.  Perhaps knowing that Gymboree is happening at 11 o’clock, after breakfast and getting dressed and playtime with just Mommy, will ease some of her anxiety about it.

3. You can also try getting there 10-to-15 minutes early to bake in some time for her to re-acclimate and settle in. (You can also remind yourself that not all toddlers enjoy Gymboree and that’s also totally okay! Maybe she’d be happier having more unstructured time at the library, being with just one other playmate at a paint-your-own pottery place, or something else that’s just not so…loud and bright and much.)

It’s NOT Okay for Your Toddler to Hit You

The one thing that’s NOT okay, however, is the hitting you in the face while you’re talking to someone else. And of course, I don’t mean that in an “OMG you’re raising a violent sociopath” way because it’s such a super common behavior for this age. (My almost-two-year old went through a “throw toys at Mama’s face to get her attention” phase that was JUST LOVELY. And bruise-y.) It’s just…not acceptable behavior for this age. She’s old enough to know that hitting hurts, hands are not for hitting, etc., and the fact that she’s genuinely anxious or nervous still doesn’t make hitting okay. Don’t reward her with attention or even eye contact — since that’s exactly what she wants — just calmly cover her hands, say “Hands are for hitting. Hitting hurts.” (Here’s a terrific book to help reinforce this.) Put her down and resume your conversation. She can close her eyes and bury her face in your legs if she wants, but she cannot hit or smack or punch.

Focus on Positive Interactions, not Judgy Strangers

Try not to make too much of the judge-y, unsuccessful interactions with random strangers. You probably remember them better than she does! If they call her shy or use other labeling language, tell her being shy is okay. There’s nothing wrong with being shy. Focus instead of giving her opportunities for positive social interactions that are designed for her needs and set up for optimal success. That can mean keeping her own birthday party super-small, providing lots of photos of the person/people she’s going to see ahead of time, a 10/15 minute buffer of just you-and-her time where she can cling a little and you can talk her through everything that’s going to happen, etc. And toddler who prefers parallel play or doing her own thing on a playdate is absolutely normal (and still socially beneficial!) for two-year-olds, so try to stop worrying so much about that. If your family is frustrated by her repeated need for a day to warm up to them, schedule regular Skype/video chats with them so she can have some interaction/carry-over between visits. (But by all means allow her time and space to make the connection in person!)

You are Not Alone

I’m sorry this feels hard and isolating for you, and like you’re the only parent with a child “like this.” I promise you, you are NOT. There are sooooo many parents out there with slow-to-warm-up/stranger-anxious/anti-structured-activity kids…they are just likely skipping the damn Gymboree classes and birthday parties and all that crap right now too, because screw it, it’s too stressful. Let’s just go hang out on the playground.

And to put this time in perspective: Tons of us end up on the other side of the baby/toddler-and-me activities and playgroup years without making any “lifelong mom friends.” Don’t feel like you have to force it to happen right now, for either her developmental sake or your own social life. Maybe she’ll make a BFF in preschool/kindergarten and you’ll meet someone awesome at a non-parent-centric club or class you join after hiring a babysitter. Or another mom on Facebook will confess that her kid also hates birthday parties and thinks circle time at the library is one of Dante’s circles of social hell and you’ll be like, OMG ME TOOOOO let’s have super-quiet playdate and drink wine together. The number of friends we have isn’t what makes us happy or socially well-adjusted people, it’s the quality of the friendships. And you both will have plenty of opportunities to find that, in your own ways, and time.

(Because once more, with feeling: How things are right now is not how things will always be!)

Photo source: Depositphotos/Klanneke

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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