Helping Your Quiet Child Navigate Social Settings

Dear Priscilla,

My husband and I are both introverts, so it’s no surprise our 3-year-old son, Jack, is also an introvert. In most social settings with kids and adults, he is the most introverted of the bunch.

When we enter a social setting with other parents and kids, Jack is reluctant to interact or talk unless he already knows the kids. He will certainly never play with unknown kids at parks or museums, etc. If he warms up to the social setting at all, it takes a very long time. This is not an issue for me or my husband as we just assure him that “it’s okay” and he can play when he is ready. We encourage him to play and interact, but don’t push him. So this brings me to two questions:

1. What is the best way to encourage young, preschool-age introverts to try out new situations?

We don’t want to push and make it an issue, but we also want our son to learn that it’s okay to make new friends.

Given that he is introverted (and only 3), he will not speak to new adults and kids when they initiate a conversation, ask him his name, etc. As a parent, I feel the instinct to apologize on behalf of my son and say he is “shy” or “introverted.”

Often, adults (and some persistent kids) will keep talking to him in an attempt to get him out of his shell. This never works and causes him to retract even more. Depending on who the person is, I will say, “Just give him space; he will interact when he is ready.”

I’ve also had a well-meaning friend tell me he is being “defiant” by not interacting in social settings and clinging to us.

Essentially, I feel like I have to make excuses for my introverted son, which I don’t want to do and don’t want him to overhear. My husband and I both reminisce about how much we disliked when our parents would say, “Oh, he/she is just shy.”

2. How do we graciously educate others about interacting with our son in a way that is also respectful towards our son?

I never want him to feel like being introverted is a bad thing.


Dear Sara,

First, I want to say that I hear you and empathize with you in a very personal way. Your son sounds very much like my younger son James when he was that age. And second, I want to say that you sound like a wonderfully supportive, wise, and intuitive mother. Making sure that Jack knows it’s okay for him to be who he is and encouraging him to take risks without pushing him too hard or too fast, you are doing everything right in my book!  

As far as “the best way to encourage young, preschool-age introverts to try out new situations,” you’ve partially answered your own question just by using the word “encourage.” Encouraging without pushing and facilitating without insisting will help Jack to feel supported while being challenged just the right amount. In general, we want to strive for a balance between 1) honoring a child’s personality, not judging, not overwhelming, and providing comfort and safety and 2) facing anxiety, reinforcing bravery, and facilitating growth and adaptability.   

Here are some ways to help with the second set of these crucial tasks:

Prepare for new situations and new people in advance.

We used what are called “social stories” with both of our boys. These stories (either written down or told to the child) previewed what they could expect to experience and whom they could expect to encounter. The stories also allowed the boys to rehearse some scenarios. If you can show Jack photos of or tell him about a place, situation, or person before you go, it will help reduce his anxiety about the unknown. Try to meet the people individually in advance of a group gathering so he can feel more familiar with them. Having play dates with one or two children before a larger get-together is a helpful way to reduce novelty and allow for connections to begin in a less pressured setting.

Reduce the novelty overload and increase familiarity once you’re there.

Allow him to bring transitional objects such as a favorite stuffed animal, book, or toy with him. Visit a place such as a playground, restaurant, museum, or bookstore at a time when there aren’t very many people there. Be one of the first to arrive to a party or gathering so that Jack can acclimate to the space before it gets crowded with unfamiliar people and becomes noisy and chaotic.

Go very slowly.

If you do too much too soon, children can retreat and become even more resistant. Gradual exposure is best.

Use positive past experiences as motivation and reassurance for future ones.

Remind Jack how he’s conquered fear or overcome hesitation in the past. Did he bravely conquer a checkup or try a new food?

And now to your second question: “How do we graciously educate others about interacting with our son in a way that is also respectful towards our son?”

Because you’re concerned about Jack overhearing your explanations, I would recommend letting people know about his temperament and personality in advance if possible. If you’re invited to a party or gathering with extended family over the holidays, prepare people for Jack with a phone call or email.  

In describing Jack, you don’t have to make excuses or apologize for your son’s temperament, ever. But it is important to minimize the chances that people will take his behavior personally or overwhelm him with well-meaning overtures. Tell them he’s an introvert (thanks to Susan, the word is pretty widely used and understood now!) and can get a little overwhelmed in new situations or with new people. There’s a line from Quiet—“he’s recoiling from novelty or overstimulation, not from human contact”—that I find a helpfully pithy way of summarizing why people shouldn’t feel insulted or hurt when Jack doesn’t immediately chat with them or want to play. I’d suggest using it as a helpful slogan!

By the way, prominent child and adolescent psychologist Anne Marie Albano shares your (and Susan Cain’s) distaste for labeling a child as shy. She told me that the label of shy “sets up others to walk on eggshells around your child and not expect him or her to interact, so they are treated differently than other kids, which reinforces their developing identity as ‘the shy child.’”

During the actual encounters, parties, or gatherings, if people look askance when Jack doesn’t respond to their attempts to engage him, you can refer to him as “introverted” or “slow-to-warm-up.” Speak calmly, confidently, and cheerfully—with no embarrassment or apologetic note in your voice.

If he turns his head away from a greeting, rejects an invitation to play, or recoils from a hug, make sure people understand that it’s just Jack’s way of dealing with a novel social situation—that it isn’t anything they did or said—so they don’t feel hurt, affronted, or frustrated by his seeming lack of interest or engagement.

Model for them ways of both interacting with him—gently, patiently, and appealingly—and letting him be when he needs space, time, or both. You can do that by showing them what kind of approach works best, telling them what his interests are, etc.

All these concrete strategies notwithstanding, in my own parenting of two unconventional boys, I’ve found it helpful to remember that despite our most strenuous efforts, not everyone will “get” our kids the way we want or hope they would. They’ll either resist our attempts to educate them or cling to their own preconceptions about what children or parents should do. (I am not a fan of shoulds.) It can be very painful to have others not understand our children or judge our kids and our parenting.

So my final piece of advice is that sometimes we have to let go, not worry about others’ opinions and judgments, and be confident and secure in knowing that we are our children’s best advocates. Jack is very lucky to have such compassionate, patient, and sensitive parents!