Why Is My Outgoing Child Suddenly Shy?

Social styles can differ across ages and personalities and still be healthy and typical. The key is to support children in growing their social skills in a way that matches what feels natural to them.

An illustration of mom watching two children play.
Photo: Parents.

Let's Make Friends

My child used to be outgoing. She started kindergarten in August and now when she sees kids in park she avoids playing with them, even if she knows them. Often this leads me to push her to ask, 'can I play with you?' She was not like this when she went to daycare. Most of the time, she keeps saying she doesn't want to go to after school as there is no one to play with. I asked the afterschool and they helped her. I wanted her to be an extrovert. I want to teach my kid to speak up and make friends but how can I teach this?

—Let's Make Friends

It sounds like you value your daughter's friendships and social skills, and you worry that as your daughter has gone through this transition from daycare to kindergarten, she has changed from an extrovert to an introvert. But she may just be adjusting.

I remember my first day of kindergarten at a new school. Other children leaped all over the room, and I sat as still and as silently as possible, feeling completely overwhelmed by the energy level. I had been at my daycare since infancy and felt like I had left a safe world of social confidence to enter the wild.

Social relationships are critical to every child's development and well-being, but ways of socially relating can vary significantly among children and still be healthy and typical. A key dilemma is finding the balance between coaching social skills and accepting a child as being socially different than you may want them to be. Read on to learn how to identify and nurture your child's personality.

Consider Transitions

Your daughter has recently made one of the biggest transitions of childhood—starting kindergarten. She likely had a level of comfort at daycare that makes the novelty of kindergarten jarring.

If she has trouble adjusting to some parts of this new environment and routine, this stress may show up as more nervousness with social interactions as she gets her bearings. The structure and expectations of kindergarten can feel overwhelming, and making new friends takes energy and effort that may feel like too much!

Nurture Their Nature

School transition also aligns with developmental changes, including blooming personality traits. Spend a few minutes in any kindergarten classroom, and I promise you will see a vast range of personality types. For example, the confident and outgoing kid has trouble listening because they have so much to say. Then there's the quieter child finding solace coloring in the corner (that was me). Plus, there's a whole range in the middle.

As Susan Cain writes in her book about introverts, Quiet (Crown), American culture values extroversion, despite the many positive attributes of introversion. This cultural value can translate into parents hoping they have an outgoing child because it appears those children do better in general. Unfortunately, this can result in parents pushing their introverted children to go against what feels natural.

Your daughter being reserved around her new classmates these first few months of kindergarten does not define her as an introvert or extrovert. Of course, there could be other factors related to the transition, but I encourage you to be open to accepting a range of social behaviors. For example, some children are more observers than actors or prefer one or two close, trustworthy friends to a large group of friends.

Nudge Instead of Push

Nudging kids to play together at this age is wholly warranted because they are new at making friends. But be careful not to do too much for them.

Instead of directing her to ask, "can I play with you," you might use a more subtle tactic: "Those kids over there are playing a fun game. What do you think about asking if you can play, too?" This way of approaching playground interactions has a greater chance of building her confidence because she feels like it is her choice. If she declines, this allows you to probe more.

Explore Her Experience

I know she's young, but it can be helpful to ask her some simple, open-ended questions to get a sense of what it's like for her in these social situations. At this age, when they can barely report what they ate for lunch by the time they get home from school, it's best to ask questions as close to the moment as possible.

So, if she declines your gentle nudge to join play, you can ask her open-ended questions then and there to get a better idea of how she's thinking and feeling. Some examples:

  • "What do you think would happen if you went over there and asked to play?"
  • "What kind of kids do you like playing with the most?"
  • "What does it feel like to ask kids to play? Sometimes it can be like butterflies in our tummies if we feel nervous."
  • "What's it like for you when other kids are playing with their friends, and you are doing something by yourself?"

These questions show your child you are interested in her perspective rather than pushing her to do something uncomfortable. In addition, you can use the answers to then add the power of empathy to your coaching ("I know you are scared they will say No"). Finally, you may learn something surprising about her experience, which can help you respond more effectively.

Consider Major Life Events

Major life events, like a pandemic, move, divorce, or death in the family, can affect children of all ages in ways we may or may not notice. The uncertainty these situations bring can come out as more caution in social situations.

For example, my son was a mere kindergartener when schools shut down in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I will never forget going to an outdoor birthday party a year later with his first-grade classmates and worrying he was socially doomed—he barely left my side even as some boys invited him to play and only spoke to others if I prompted him to do so. I noticed a few other parents with velcroed-to-their-sides children and realized these first graders had not been in social groups in a year during one of their most formative social phases. (Now a second grader, he's a social butterfly!)

As you use open-ended questions to understand her social experience better, if fears come up, shifting to address those may be more effective. When we ask more questions, our young children can often surprise us with what is going on in their little minds.

The Bottom Line

Although you can coach children to develop skills, you can be even more effective if you take the time and effort to listen. Understanding your kids' perspectives allows for empathy in your response, which is crucial for your children to feel understood and accepted for who they are and where they are with their abilities.

These strategies increase closeness and trust in parent-child relationships, transforming "instructing and directing" into supporting children's personalities. And this gives them the most secure foundation to keep growing and learning.

Submit your parenting questions to Ask Your Mom, which may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois, and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns.

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