More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
The Timid Toddler
Holly Bennett

It's the weekly toddler time at the library, and most of the kids are busy with something, if not always the stories. Some are all eyes and ears, involved in the pictures and words and clapping along to the songs. One little boy is exploring the room, more interested in the far corners than the program. A curly-haired girl has come right up to the librarian, wanting to get a closer look at her puppet.

Not Hannah. She is in her mom's lap, clinging to her, and has not relaxed her grip in the last 20 minutes.

"The program was 40 minutes long and that was about how long it took Hannah to become comfortable," says Lisa Courtney, Hannah's mother. "Then once it was over she didn't want to leave."

That's not unusual behaviour for a toddler, says Nicole Chambers, assistant manager at Mothercraft's Centre for Early Development in Toronto. "At one point or another they're going to be hyper aware of their environment and any change in it," she says. "Timid just becomes a logical reaction to change." Why this sudden awareness? Kim Kienapple, associate professor and chair of the child and youth study department at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, explains: "Toddlers are developing a clear sense of their own identity, and that gives them a boundary between what's me and what's you. And if someone interferes with that boundary - say someone unfamiliar gets a little too close - they tend to pull back and react with wariness."

In Hannah's case, though, there's more at work than a passing phase. "She has always been like this," says Courtney. "New situations, new people and even changes in daily activities can be a problem if I'm not able to prepare her ahead of time."

"It can be part of their overall temperament," agrees Chambers. But whether your toddler is naturally cautious, or just going through a timid phase, these strategies can help her to cope:

Prepare her. "Tell your child about change, newness or a transition using simple language and concrete examples," suggests Chambers. Because toddlers understand more than they can express, a few simple words can really help. That's been important for Hannah. Courtney thinks it took her a long time to get comfortable at story time because "it was difficult to prepare her since it was all new to me as well."

Stay relaxed and positive yourself. Kienapple describes how toddlers use "social referencing" to help them figure out how to respond: "In a new situation, they look at their parent or caregiver and check her facial expression for reassurance that everything is OK." That doesn't mean, says Chambers, that your toddler will rush to embrace Aunt Gertrude just because you do, but a child will warm up much more quickly if the adult seems happy and welcoming with the person. By the same token, if you seem tense and worried walking into daycare, that may reinforce your child's natural apprehension.

Speak up for your child. If you know your child will be upset when your friend swoops down to cuddle her, it's up to you to communicate that. "The key for someone who wants to approach a toddler," says Kienapple, "is to look for the same sorts of social signals that you would if you were approaching an adult: eye contact; a smile that says yes, you can approach me, yes, I want to talk to you. Then you can step forward and try to engage the child. So you may have to say, 'Willie needs to get used to you being here before he'll talk. Let's sit down together, and he'll come over when he's ready.' "

Be patient. "Allow them to observe initially," suggests Chambers. Hannah went to story time for several weeks before she was really comfortable there, but once she got used to the routine, says Courtney, she had fun.

Provide a familiar comfort. A reassuring element in the midst of the new situation can help a toddler control her fears. Your reassuring presence is a big part of that, of course, but your child might also find a favourite blanket or an activity, like reading a story, to be calming.

Be your child's guide. "We have to broadcast and interpret for our child," says Chambers. "What I mean by that is talk aloud about what is happening around you. While you'e sitting on the sidelines observing the toddler gymnastics class, for example, talk casually about what' going on. 'The kids are crawling through the tunnel. That looks like fun. And that's
the teacher, Marty. He' s helping all the children.'"

Learn your child's distress signals. "You need to be especially sensitive to children's cues when they are in a novel situation," says Kienapple. Ideally, you will recognize when your child is stressed before he starts crying, and support him through the situation. What cues would you look for? - Gaze avoidance, muscle tensing, trying to hide his face, running to mom. When you see those cues, you know the child is feeling overwhelmed by the experience. So a little bit of cuddling might help, and backing him out of the situation and then easing in more slowly can help," says Kienapple.

Know when to nudge. It's counterproductive to overload a timid toddler with new experiences, or to push her into situations she can't cope with. But it's a great learning experience for her to discover that, with mom's or dad's help, she can handle meeting a stranger or dipping into the pool. So there's a balance, says Chambers: "Accept your child and support her for who she is, while gently encouraging her to try new things." Courtney says, "Hannah can't be forced into something that she doesn't want to do, but a little coaxing is good as long as I reassure her that I am there for her. How do you do that? Let your toddler watch the swim class from the sidelines at first. When he seems relaxed, try a next step: 'Let's go sit on the side so we can see better: I'm going to dip my feet in. Do you want to try?'"

Trust in time. Hannah is nearly three now, and benefitting from her growing verbal skills and experience. "It is getting easier," says Courtney, "because Hannah is understanding more as she gets older. And I think it's easier because we have learned what to do as well."
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