Parents often stress about kids and social skills, so it can be helpful to remember that social styles can look really different across ages and personalities, and still be healthy and typical. Parents.com's "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says the key is to support our children in growing their social skills in a way that matches what feels natural to them.

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

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. 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.

As true as it is that social relationships are critical to every child's development and well-being, ways of relating socially can vary greatly among children and still be healthy and typical. A key dilemma here is finding the balance between coaching important skills with accepting a child as being socially different than you may want her to be.

Big Transitions, Big Changes

Your daughter has recently made one of the biggest transitions of childhood. She likely had a level of comfort at daycare that makes the novelty of kindergarten jarring. If she has trouble with adjusting to some parts of this new environment and routine, this stress may be showing 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!

Personality: Nurturing their Nature

This transition also aligns with developmental changes, including the blooming of personality traits. Spend a few minutes in any kindergarten classroom, and I promise you will see a huge range of personality types, from the confident and outgoing kid who has trouble listening because they have so much to say, to the quieter child finding solace coloring in the corner (that was me). As Susan Cain writes in her book about introverts, Quiet, American culture values extroversion, despite the many attributes of introversion. This can translate into parents hoping they have an outgoing child, because it appears as if those children do better in general. This can result in parents pushing their introverted children to go against what feels natural.

To be fair, your daughter being reserved around her new classmates these first few months of kindergarten does not define her as an introvert or extrovert. There could be other factors related to the transition, but I do encourage you to be open to accepting a range of social behaviors. 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 completely warranted because they are new at this whole making friends thing, but be careful to not 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 gives you an opportunity 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 types of questions accomplish several goals: They show her you are interested in her perspective rather than pushing her to do something uncomfortable; you can use the answers to then add the power of empathy to your coaching ("I know you are scared they will say No"); and you may learn something surprising about her experience, which can help you respond more effectively.

Let's Not Forget COVID

My own son was a mere kindergartener when school shut down in March 2020. 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!)

Although your daughter has the benefit of kindergarten in a classroom, all these COVID-driven changes in our environments over the last 20 months have certainly affected children of all ages, in ways we are still noticing. The uncertainty of her world over the last year may be coming out as more caution in social situations. As you use open-ended questions to better understand her social experience, if COVID fears come up, shifting to address those may end up being more effective. When we ask more questions, our young children can often surprise us with what is going on in those little minds.

The Bottom Line

Although we talk a lot about how to be coaches for our children to develop skills, we can be even more effective if we take the time and effort to also listen. Understanding their perspective allows for empathy in our response, which is a key ingredient for our children feeling understood and accepted for who they are, and where they are with their abilities. These strategies increase closeness and trust in our relationships, which can transform "instructing and directing" into supporting our child in behaving in a way truest to themselves, not who we wish they would be. And this gives them the most secure foundation to keep growing and learning.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they 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.