Q: My toddler will have nothing to do with the other kids when I bring him to church with me. He always insists on standing right with me, hanging on to my leg. Even when I’m a few feet away from where the other children are all sitting, he will not budge from my side. He’s terribly shy. I need social contact so I bring him to different play groups, but several mothers at one referred to him as the “little man,” because he was so serious, watching all the other kids playing yet refusing to join in with them. I’m really worried about his tendency to hold back. I’m concerned about what his shyness means for his future. Will he be independent? How will he manage in the world as he gets older if he just hangs back? It seems like all his clinging to me means he’s just not having a good time and it’s my fault, because I’m a stay-at-home mom who is always there for him. Any advice on how to get him to change?

A: This is not an unusual question, since many parents wonder what makes their child “shy,” blaming themselves as you do for their child’s temperament. Let’s first remove the term “shy,” as this creates a label that children interpret as negative: “Something’s wrong with me. I don’t fit in. I’m not like other kids.” Our first step is to eliminate that stigma, providing unconditional acceptance that this child is fine just the way he is. The next step is to approach who he is with “this is who my child is; how can I help him?” Compassion, understanding, support, with gentle ways to help him face the world, are what’s needed. According to Dr. Jerome Kagan, a Harvard University psychology professor who conducted more than 30 years of a study on temperament, research indicates that approximately 15 percent of our population is born with what’s called a “slow-to-warm-up” temperament.

More frequently, however, “shyness” can simply be attributed to a developmental phase. Your 2-year-old toddler’s reticence is simply an expression of caution in a world still new and often somewhat overwhelming. For an example: a toddler entering a new play center may well hold on close to his parent’s leg while attempting to figure out the rules of this exciting yet “alien” environment.

Keep in mind that toddlers have minimal social history. What we adults take for granted in social situations, such as shaking hands, hugs, different forms of engagement, loud voices, all are new to toddlers and can be frightening. Paying close attention to the cues a toddler gives his parent — staying securely on your lap or clinging to your leg — reveals to you, non-verbally, that he needs your support. Trying to push him beyond his comfort zone to jump into the social circle is more about your need than his, communicating that you think something is wrong with him.

In time, children acquire the competence to express what is scary to them. Meanwhile, they need to be given opportunities to explore new situations in a way that makes them feel comfortable. Adults in our culture tend to make assumptions, especially in settings where it makes it easier for them, that children should be ready and willing to jump right in, rather than understanding that not everyone approaches the world in the same way. It’s helpful to view the differences as normal — while some children may explore their world with their hands, those we label as “shy” move around the unfamiliar initially with their eyes. Our tendency is to judge a 2-year-old who is hanging back observing other children playing as passive, that he’s simply not doing anything. However, his observations allow him to prepare himself to join in by first practicing the activity mentally.

Whether your toddler’s hesitation is an integral part of his temperament or simply a developmental stage, there are ways to help soften the sharp edges of his world, making it more approachable. First, provide ample time to relax gradually into your play groups and any other scheduled outings. Some moms find it helpful to allow their toddlers to remain close to them, as needed, when first getting together with other children. That way, they can take whatever time they need to warm up, eventually feeling comfortable joining in. Unfortunately, that might even happen just as they’re ready to leave! Secondly, respect your child’s cues — he will let you know what he is/isn’t ready for — such as if he’s not comfortable kissing a relative hello or goodbye, or allowing friends to see his new pet kitten, don’t force him. This will only lead to a power struggle, which is his way of protecting himself. Most importantly, don’t use labels, such as telling others, “He’s a bit shy.” That potentially becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; rather, you can lead by example, saying something like, “Let’s all look at the new kitten.”

With 2-year-olds rarely capable of identifying what scares or makes them uncomfortable, parents need to try to connect to the root of that. For instance, one child’s grandmother had new eyeglasses when she came to visit. When her grandchild rejected having anything to do with her, the parents and grandmother guessed it might be the new glasses, transforming her face. Sure enough, the next time she came over, she wore her old glasses, switching to her new frames in his presence, which made all the difference!

Finally, I hear many adults share how a label of being “shy” affected them negatively growing up, causing them to have low self-esteem. The message in that label carried considerable weight, leaving them believing they were “less than,” somehow not acceptable the way they are. When we reframe their approach as simply being “slow-to-warm-up,” it opens up new possibilities, shifting their view of themselves. We must always be mindful that labels keep us stuck. Moving beyond labels that may cause someone to feel handicapped can be extremely liberating, empowering those who can then embrace their unique view of the world. Thus, accepting your child’s temperament (the “how” of behavior, shaping how he will react to situations) will help him thrive, knowing his parents support and respect him for who he is. When your child is accepted unconditionally, without pressure to become someone else, he can then be comfortable in his own skin, even growing up to surprise you!