Ask an Expert: Shy Child Behavior

Ask an Expert: Shy Child Behavior

Question: How can I, as a parent, support my son who is very very shy around his peers? (3yo)

Answer from Kendra:

What a wonderful question! I think many parents and caregivers can relate to having a child that is shy or as I like to say “slow to warm up” to their peers. The simple approaches I am going to suggest are assuming you are able to accommodate a social interaction inside your home or in a common/public space (meaning not at daycare/school). These suggestions are ideally for children developmentally 2.5-6 years old, but can be modified to support any child. 


Before the social interaction:

  1. Prime your child. Let your child know 3-4 days prior to the playdate of the name of the child they will be playing with—revisiting as the playdate gets closer. Ideally begin having your child engage with one other child and increase the number of children involved as they are successful. 

  2. Provide choices. Allow your child to select a couple activities for the playdate. If they struggle to make choices, you can select 2-3 activities for them to choose from.

  3. Practice. Engage with your child and the activities they will do during the playdate. Model language your child can use like “Can I have a turn?” and “That’s a cool tower!” or “I need a break”  and model ways to engage with the materials. This will make it easier for them to know what to do once the playdate is here and reduce reluctance to engage. Make the activities as fun and silly as possible!

*Note: keep the playdate short and sweet. I would recommend no more than 1-1.5 hours 

During the social interaction:

  1. Setting up. It may be helpful to set up a visual schedule for your child to reference what they can expect to do with their peer(s) for the playdate. For example, you could have a picture of legos, then a snack, and lastly dot paint. 

  2. Facilitate. During each activity place various materials with each child that will encourage them to engage with one another to complete the task or activity together. For example, if they are doing dot-paint you can provide one child with all of the dot-paint markers and provide the other child with all of the paper. Your goal is to get them engaging, but it doesn’t need to be the entire time. Especially in the beginning, parallel or side-by-side play is a great starting point for young children.

  3. Fade. Once the activity is underway, try to take a step back and let the children explore. Even if your child isn’t actively talking or doing much outside of watching their peers, this is a huge win! We learn so much about ourselves and the world around us by observing. You can also re-model language and/or actions to signal your child to join in, but don’t be alarmed if they don’t. Again, we all move at a pace that feels safe and secure for us.


After the social interaction:

  1. Check-in. I always like to check-in with the child and see what they enjoyed about playing with a friend. Try to focus on the positive aspects, but if they bring up negative experiences or feelings, validate those as well using empathetic and neutral language. “I hear you saying sharing your legos with (name) was hard, maybe next time we play with them we can choose a different activity that may be easier to share”. Pay attention to what they share both verbally and non-verbally, as that can tell us a lot about their feelings as well.

  2. Praise. No matter how old we get, it’s always nice to hear what you did well! Highlight positive experiences you saw during the playdate that you’d like to see again in the future. “I love how when (name) asked for help taking the lego apart, you helped them! It was also really funny when you made that silly noise during our walk to the park.”

About Kendra Holmes, M. Ed, BCBA

Kendra Bell Holmes is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, Special Education Advocate and first time mom. In an effort to create an inclusive environment for all children, Kendra has spent nearly a decade working to teach appropriate communication, socialization and play and leisure skills to learners 0-15 years old. She supports parents and caregivers from diverse socioeconomic, racial and ability levels on topics such as handling challenging behavior, enhancing sibling interactions and learning through play. 

Kendra lives in Portland, OR with her husband Reynolds, their dog Ice and daughter Ritchie. She earned a BA in Sociology from San Francisco State University and Masters in Education from Arizona State University.