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Helping a Shy 3-Year-Old Make Friends

brunette baby with big blue eyes

Q: My 3-year-old is a chatterbox at home but virtually silent when I take him to play with other children. It's frustrating -- I don't understand why he's so timid around other children. I'd like to help him make friends, but, at the same time, I don't want to be overbearing. What should I do?

A: You're not alone. I've talked with many parents who describe similar behavior. While some kids jump into new situations, there are those who are more fearful and cautious and need support and time to feel safe. Carefully observe your son's behavior to determine what situations are challenging for him. When you know he'll be in one of those situations, talk with him beforehand about what is going to happen -- where you will be going, who will be there, how he might feel at first. Together, brainstorm what he can do to feel comfortable interacting with others.

Planning Play Dates

It can also be useful to arrive at the location early and let your child check the place out before others arrive. You might take a few toys that he's willing to share. When others arrive, let him stay close to you. Talk about what you see the other kids doing. If there are one or two children engaged in an activity you think your child would enjoy, go over with him and watch -- talk about what they are doing and suggest ways he may get involved too. These little steps will help him eventually feel more comfortable interacting with and talking to his peers.

Arranging one-on-one play dates is another good strategy. Stay close by, but limit your involvement as much as possible; your role is to act as a mediator and coach -- suggesting activities the children might do together. This will help build his confidence to form relationships over the next few years.

Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a nationwide nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).

Originally published in American Baby magazine, August 2006.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.