Empowering a Passive or “Shy” Child

In the twenty years that I’ve facilitated parent-toddler groups, I’ve known a handful of toddlers that I’d consider to be socially gifted. These children seem to have an innate knack for engaging with peers effectively and appropriately from the get-go.  For the majority of toddlers, however, mastering the ins and outs of socialization is a challenge (lifelong for many of us), and a messy one at that.

We enable our children’s social learning in two important ways: 1) By supporting and acknowledging struggles while intervening as minimally as possible; and 2) Trust. This is the biggie. Children can’t proceed with confidence unless we perceive them as capable learners and trust their processes. So, trust is crucial, but it can be challenging when our child seems either aggressive or too passive.

I’ve already shared several posts and podcasts about responding effectively to children exhibiting aggressive behavior (HERE, HERE, and HERE). So I thought it might be helpful to share some guidelines for empowering the child who seems too passive (i.e., who lets go of all the toys, seems to avoid or capitulate in struggles, or is reticent to engage with others). Here’s what I came up with:



Our children are not us. They may have inherited our quieter, more thoughtful or introspective temperament (strong traits, in my opinion), but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they’ll be “painfully” shy, socially awkward or, worse, victims of bullying. Even if we were. Our trust and acceptance instills in our children a healthy, strong core of self-confidence, a “comfort in their skin” that we may not have had. This is the best gift we can give them as parents.


Judgments of our own children (Why isn’t he holding onto that toy?) or the children they are engaging with (How bratty of her not to give him a turn!) cloud the air, intensifying the struggles between children and the emotions around these struggles.  This makes healthy processing and exploration far less possible.


When we’re caught up in our concerns about our children, it can be difficult to remember how powerful we are in these situations. Young children are extremely perceptive and tuned into us — to the extent that they can almost read our minds. Our doubt in them has a crippling effect. Our perceptions of children as weak, passive, or fragile can become self–fulfilling prophecies

Fix, Rescue

With our open, trusting attitude in place, our interventions will mostly be to prevent physically harmful behavior. When intervening beyond that (i.e., we protect the toy our child is holding), I would do it sparingly, carefully choosing our battles, because over-intervening (i.e., asking other children to include our child in their play) tends to reinforce to our child that he can’t do it himself and needs us to orchestrate his world.

Force or urge children to greet people or participate in activities, etc.

Trust, trust, trust. Again, our discomfort and lack of acceptance is felt by our children and causes them to freeze up, glom on, feel like failures.


Trust and believe in children

It can help to remind ourselves repeatedly: “My child is exactly where he or she is supposed to be in this journey.”

Sensitively observe

Sensitive observation is the opposite of (and antidote to) projection. It requires us to let go of our fears and doubts, remove our adult lenses, and see with an open mind. My mentor, infant specialist Magda Gerber suggested parents place all our concerns, preconceived notions about our children, and other unproductive distractions in an imaginary basket so that we can be freed up to perceive situations with clarity and better understand our children’s perspectives.

Protect and Support

Calmly move nearby to support children whenever there is tension or a struggle so that hitting, pushing, etc., can be easily blocked. If we get there after the fact, we’re advised to take extra care to remain as calm as possible so as to avoid infecting the situation with our own emotional reactions. Children tend to take experiences in far more slowly and gradually than we do. They need and deserve this time to be able to decide how they feel, rather than having parents do that for them. Left to form their own opinions, I’ve noticed that children tend to be more puzzled than offended by aggression. They want to figure it out, and that’s healthy. It’s been my sense that children relate on some level to the impulse to scream or lash out physically. They receive it in a different way and tolerate it.  Or perhaps they’re just more open minded about it.


When we only acknowledge what we know for sure, we can give children lots of breathing room to learn from their experiences. And experiencing it firsthand is the way children learn best.

Offer casual tips and open-ended feedback

If our attitude is trusting rather than fearful and uncomfortable, we’ll be able to nail the kind of delivery that is helpful to our child without it coming off as a correction or reflection of our disappointment. I offer a demonstration in my podcast, “My Child is Too Passive”.

Be the emotionally neutral, safe place for our children to share and explore

This is our goal, and it’s a worthy one, but we needn’t be perfect. Just as with our children, it’s all about believing in ourselves and trusting the process.


I share more about sportscasting, socialization, and the power of minimal interventions in my book:

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

And here’s a podcast on this topic (you can read the transcript HERE):


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Away from play when we’re preparing to visit or have someone over, we talk about sharing. For our highly sensitive boy, I’ve felt it appropriate to include explaining that he can tell others, “No,” or walk away when he doesn’t want to share a toy he’s playing with. He still tends to wait and see what the other children will do, but it seemed to me that talking about saying no helped him to express what he wanted. (He was just asking for me to help him if he wanted the toy badly enough- to which I’d just sportscast the event and tell him he could work with the other child). I’m not sure if that would be totally in sync with RIE, but it seemed like another way to help him label his possible emotions.

    1. Kayla, I think your child is afraid that the other child will get angry at him for taking a toy. If that is the case, teach your child how to speak assertively and to feel empowered by his own voice.

  2. My 3 and a half year old is usually great in a group of children that he knows well. He can both lead and follow in play. He’s apprehensive around children he doesn’t know though. For example in the park he will run away if someone else is going up the slide rather than get in line and wait his turn or even if a child tries to speak to him. I manage quite well sportscasting and just calmly observing the situation but his carers at kindergarten tend to try fix things for him and he’s become quite emotional lately. Little things set him off, he gets flustered and annoyed either with himself or his playmates if things don’t go the way he expected. The other day he burst into tears because his buddy wanted to sit next to another child rather than him. He literally howled that he’s his best friend and he HAS to sit next to him. Or this week he fell and scratched his finger at kindergarten and spent the entire day walking around with it in the air telling everyone that he can’t do anything because he’s hurt, made a big fuss about it (he used to fall off his bike and just get up and go!). I’m not sure what to make of these recent emotional outbursts or if should be concerned about them at all?

    1. Holy cow! This is EXACTLY where my almost three year old daughter is at right now!! She used to be unfazed by most things but now is so much more fearful. I feel like I need to “fix” it and get her back where she used to be, but I know she’s allowed to go through her own processes. It’s hard to watch her back down or run away. Glad I’m not alone!

    2. It sounds like your child needs more attention from his playmates, and is looking for a friend who he can be with individually. When he pretends to hurt his finger, its because he needs more attention from his playmates that he is not getting.

  3. Hi Janet, I have a question in relation to the part where you talk about how we shouldn’t speak for our children. My 3,5-year-old has started kindergarten in England but does not speak English yet. She is fluent in her mother tongue and I think she is a bit frustrated (or frightened?) by her lack of language there. She is taking a long time to setle in so I am still in with her. She sometimes asks me to say something to the teacher or another child for her. How would you go about that? Thank you, Szidonia

  4. Fabiana Gunschnigg says:

    HI Janet! I’m an early childhood teacher; When it comes to social learning and conflicts, I can easily follow the guidelines you suggest when I’m working with infants and younger toddlers. However, as children grow older I start feeling more uncomfortable with the situations because I believe that they now ‘understand’ what they are doing when they snatch a toy, for example. What do you suggest for children aged 3 and maybe 4?

  5. This was a great post. Might I add to readers (though I know you have mentioned it before) that labeling a child as “shy” (or anything else) can be really harmful. It drives me crazy when a well meaning stranger gets in my daughter’s bubble and when she hides her face or clings they say “awwww she is just shy.” I let them know that we like to take our time to get to know people and try to avoid labeling shy as being good or bad. She has it said to her so much that she will occasionally identify herself as shy. I never know what to say to that. I do see her becoming much more comfortable in social settings and I love it, though I miss the time when she seemed like mine alone.
    For parents of more reluctant children I think we have expectations for them to be able to go into an uncertain situation and immediately make friends. I never realized this until I went to a new gym class without a friend and was incredibly uncomfortable. I realized how difficult it must be to be a child and thrust into those situations all the time. Thank you so much for your guidance!

  6. Love this, Janet, as always! My eldest (now 4) has always been perceived as shy and it’s often the second thing people comment on when they meet him (the first being that he has such big and beautiful blue eyes ;).

    We’ve actually had to ask my mother-in-law to stop saying it because she did so every. single. time. we were in a social situation in her company. She did not like that very much. o_O I think she was offering this as a sort of explanation/apology for the fact that my son wouldn’t immediately rush to greet her guests or “perform” as the sweet little boy that she knows him to be. But one of my guiding principles is to never apologize for my children’s legitimate behaviors — I don’t really care what people think, I’m on their side first and foremost.

    I feel it’s 100% normal for a child to not be completely (or at all) at ease when meeting strangers, who are by definition strangers, but also towering above them by twice or three times their height, speaking loudly and sometimes with forced cheer, making jokey comments or offering conversation starters that are more for the benefit of the parent than the child, etc.

    I love it when I come across someone who shares our view of young children, who will come down to my son’s level, speak directly and in a normal tone to him, and seem genuinely interested in who he is and what he has to say. My son opens up in a split-second then, it warms my heart.

    In general, I know my kid functions best in environments with people he’s familiar with — he’s super talkative and high-energy then — and in situations when he’s not, I make it my job to stand by him and have him know I’m 100% on his side.

  7. Oh and I meant to add: for parents of older children (or those who want to read up and be prepared!) I enjoyed this book about the mechanics of friendship between children: http://www.amazon.com/dp/034544289X The author doesn’t sugar-coat things, but it’s really helpful to understand how things work, when parents can help, and when they should offer an attentive ear rather than actual intervention (= most of the time!).

  8. It is necessary to trust your child so that they can share their thoughts rather than making judgments. Parents should understand the behaviour and needs of a shy child.

  9. Hi Janet, thanks for this insightful post. My question here is about how to talk to the other children when they behave towards our child in difficult ways (ie. if they push them, hit them, take their toys etc etc.) I always find it really delicate especially at playgrounds when their parents are being oblivious or distracted. I want to do that in a way that is at one time protective and empowering for my daughter but I can’t help finding this type of situation very awkward when it happens.

    1. I would suggest only speaking to their parents. Dont speak to the other children at all. Or Just speak to your child and tell her not to play with that child anymore and that she didnt deserve that treatment.

  10. Hi Janet,
    Great post. I totally agree with this in theory, but am having a hard time following these suggestions with my 5 year old boy. He is actually very social, loves school and interacting with friends, etc. It’s just with new situations he is very reluctant. His first reaction to whenever I suggest doing anything is NO. Each camp this summer (which we have to enroll him in because I work) was such a struggle on the first day, and then he would love it. Same thing with soccer this Fall. All of his buddies on the team are signing up for basketball this winter, but his response is NO. He would probably choose to play legos at home every day all day if he were allowed to. He doesn’t usually want to try something new unless he is already confident in it, but how do you get confidence in something without trying it? And I understand not forcing your kids to do activities, but what if your kid’s first inclination is to not want to do any activities ever? It doesn’t seem like that is good for him, or us (I can’t stay home all weekend with him and his little sister).
    Thanks for any advice.

  11. Hope to get help with this situation.
    My daughter (almost 6) is currently in K. She gets along well with friends and we typically have playdates with classmates about once a week/two weeks.
    Last week she asked to have a playdate with one of her best friend. This was the first time we had a playdate with this kid and set to meet in the park.
    When we arrived there, she decided that she is “shy” (her words) and hided behind one of the trees (about 2 maters far from the kid and his family). She didn’t leave that spot. My husband and I and the kid’s family didn’t know what to do.
    She only wanted to play behind the three, and refused playing with the kid. When he tried to come to her and ask her to play, she only wanted to play in that area , that was far and didn’t leave the spot (for example she didn’t want to go to the playground/run/play).
    We tried sitting far from her and give her space, close to her, ask her what’s going on. She just replied that she is feeling shy.
    After an hour like that, I told her she can choose if to play or we will go home. She started to cry, that she want to go home and we left. So although she was super excited for this playdate for a week, there was no playdate…

    Not sure what was the best thing we should have done? And how to help her in that situation?

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