Parenting the Shy/Slow-to-Warm-Up Temperament
How well do you know the following scene? Your child thinks they want to do a new activity and they seem genuinely excited; hopeful, you go with it and register them. Fast forward to the first day, where the excitement ends right at the point that the whole idea becomes a reality. Seeing new people interacting with one another and not knowing anyone else, your child has a full on panic attack as they try to get into the mix, if they even try. After trying to coax them out gently and support their involvement at their pace (and hearing “I want to go home” for the 100th time) you retire to the car and head back home… feeling sad for your child and like a failure as a parent.
These are our shy/slow to warm-up children. These children have less intensity in their reactions than the difficult/challenging temperament, but more intensity than the easy temperament. They demonstrate mild negative responses to new situations, are slow to adapt at first but improve with more time and exposure, tend to be more anxious and timid in their approach, and are less flexible in their routines.
There’s a delicacy and a patience required to raise our children with shy temperaments. If your child sounds like the child above, even in part (as children can be a partial fit with this category), pay attention to the following in your parenting style to help support their health and development:
- Look for patterns and remember that behavior is communication. Track your child’s responses to their environment carefully. Are struggles coming at times of transition, at a place or type of place, with a particular person or type of person, or with a particular level of stimulation? Noticing these variables will help you plan and prepare your parenting responses to help reduce your child’s struggle.
- Identify what you think your child is feeling, then put that into words for your child. Articulating your attunement to your child will help them better understand their own experience, feel cared for and understood, and learn to better self-regulate over time. For example, you may say, “I see that you are starting to feel overwhelmed in here with all the noise and bright lights. Would you like to take a walk outside with me?”
- Pay attention to what your child is interested in and enjoys doing. Use these interests as opportunities to build confidence by spending time talking about these skills/interests or participating in them together.
Patience, patience, patience (and maybe some more patience)!
- Set your expectations reasonably when it comes to introducing children to new people or situations. For example, trying a ninja gym because your child loves Ninja Warrior sounds great… but knowing their sensitivities means you’ll be ready to have your child hang close for a while or even to leave early without trying anything.
- Plan ahead by talking with your child about what they can expect, and give enough time to adjust. Our shy/slow to warm up children are going to need to prepare and have enough time to settle in. Don’t rush them or let them feel your impatience. If time is naturally limited, let them know this ahead of time and plan for it. This can help reduce your child’s anxiety and give them a sense of control.
- Create routines and rituals, especially around transitions or other particularly anxiety provoking times. These are comforting as they give children a sense of control and reduce their worry. This may be something as simple as having a small set of actions you go through together, like hugs and kisses, or asking and answering the same few questions for reassurance.
- Developing social skills at your child’s pace. You can use your child’s interests/skills to connect them to other children. The common interest creates an easier entry into socialization. You can also create “safer” social interactions in your home by getting together with family and/or friends. Just remember that social groups may need to be small and alone time may be needed to decompress. Making friends takes time and patient support to help these children feel comfortable enough to interact and explore new settings and relationships.
Respect, accept and love the child you have!
- Respect your child’s needs where you are able. You will not protect your child from necessary developmental aspects of life, like trying new activities or foods, and meeting new people (all while using the above parenting skills). You will, however, adjust the world to meet their needs at appropriate times. This may be on the weekends as you slow down activity, or in a birthday party where you opt for a small group of close friends instead of a loud party with the whole class.
- Accept that your child is shy/slow to warm up and that this will not change. Telling your child to “try to be less shy” misunderstands them as a person, and this causes hurt. Your child can develop the skills needed to cope as a shy person in a loud world, but this will not change the fact that they are shy.
- Don’t impose your experience of the world or expectations for yourself on your child. If you are a more spontaneous person who enjoys socializing and novel experiences, parenting this temperament may prove quite challenging for you. This temperament requires patience and slow, planful movements.
- Mirror your child. Give your child feedback on their strengths as you are supporting them where they struggle. This looks like reframing the aspects of their temperament as strengths: “You are so observant. I wouldn’t have remembered all of those details you saw.”, or “You are a patient person. Waiting for us to be done to take you to the park is not easy.”
How do I know that my child’s behavior and reactions are just temperament and not something else?
If you have any concerns about your child’s development or their behavior, never hesitate to reach out for help, especially if you’ve tried the above suggestions and see no changes. A good family therapist will observe your family and your child and get to know how you work together. They will then be able to provide you with feedback on any potential misattunement and give you strategies for shifting those parenting dynamics. They will, of course, also be able to help you find additional support if the concerns are related to more than just temperament.
Your shy/slow-to-warm temperament children will get to where they need to be even if it takes a little more time and patience. By attuning to your child and organizing your parenting skills around their needs, these children can feel successful, develop healthy self-esteem, and develop healthy relationships.