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Is my little one just very shy?

18-month-old toddler Lisa hides behind her Mum, only peeping out when no-one is taking notice of her, but retreating hastily if anyone starts to look at her, or worse, talk to her.

Ever since I knew her, this little girl was quite different from her out-going big brother and sister, who are boisterous and full of stories to tell me. So different, in fact, that her Mum recognised early on this little one’s fearfulness, a desperate need to be close to her, and unwillingness to interact with other people the way her older children did. She decided to give up her very interesting career for a while, to spend time with her, and gradually, the shy tiny daughter started to become more confident, though still her voice was never heard by anyone who did not live in her own household.

She was walking at 11 months, and has a delicious smile, with big solemn eyes warning you she

will not let you into her own safe world, in which she can play and laugh and dance with her brother and sister, and her parents – but you are not allowed in, cos you are a bit scary, coming as you are from ‘outside’.

As a Speech and Language Therapist, I watch with interest how children around me progress in their communication skills.

And chatted with my friend about the differences between this youngest child of hers, and her older siblings.

One big difference is in the small range and number of words and sentences that her youngest is using, compared with the two chatterboxes who came before her.

There may be all sorts of reasons of this – not least, that, because she is a quiet child, she does not have nearly as much practice in talking.

Often when a child is the youngest with verbally strong siblings - she doesn't need to talk! She may be getting just what she wants without actually having to speak properly: she is using odd words and very efficient gestures, and these are immediately understood by all in the family, and responded to. And when she does not want to speak, others speak for her…

So, my friend and I started on a mission!

  1. The first change to make is that when she wants something, Mum will 'up the stakes' a little, maybe pretend not to understand, and ask her to tell her more. When she does attempt to say more, Mum praises her for saying it so well, and says the sentence back to her how it should be.

  2. Mum gives her daughter full attention, and gets her to make eye-contact. Just by doing this, Mum is showing a model of how Dad and others in the family can help her to use words and talk when she wants something.

  3. Lots of opportunity for playing with sounds and sound sequences help develop speech: children spend much of their time in these early months and years practicing speech sounds, and quiet children just need to be encouraged to do it more. Ideas: Animal, bird, vehicle, country and home sounds, as well as funny nonsense words / rhymes. Silly talk!

  4. There are so many poems and rhymes for children from the traditional, like ‘Old Macdonald had a farm’, to those still being made – and Mum and siblings can make their own rhymes.

  5. When Mum is out shopping, she should drive the other shoppers crazy by talking to her child about everything! – what she takes from the shelf, what it is called, what it looks like, what it is for. She can talk about the cashier, and what she is doing, get her child to interact with the cashier by giving the card or money to her, talking about putting things into the bags, then pushing the trolley, - well by that time cashier plus all the customers are pleased to see them disappear out of the shop! But Little One has had lots of the help she needs to learn new words, and put them into sentences, and social interaction…….

  6. Mum may need to take a more pro-active line regarding social interaction. Opportunities for baby-clubs, toddlers coffee mornings, play groups are great, especially if Mum can stay around and interact with other small children as well as playing with her own daughter, doing verbal or sound games, in which her little one is joining in happily, and encouraging another Mum to join them whilst carrying on with the game. Thus Mum is pushing her in tiny steps towards being comfortable with other people.

  7. This is her third child, so the novelty of having a first baby who is learning to talk, and recording his first words, has gone with the pressures of having three small children from whom she never has a minute’s peace to write her shopping list let alone write the new words of her third little explorer! But making a note, even on an odd card, can help to reassure about the words she is learning, and Mum can build on the words she already learned to help her learn new ones, and to put them into sentences for her. – and finally

  8. Some children are naturally shy and diffident, that’s how they are – so perhaps Mum’s acceptance of who this little person is, and how she is, will be the best way to help her gain confidence. Push – but not so hard she falls over! Let her take her time and find her way, giving her lots of opportunities to develop socially at her own pace. We all know people who are quiet, withdrawn adults – and they do fine. Some of them are my good friends!

Do you have a timid little one like Lisa? What did you find worked or did not work in helping her or him to become more confident socially?

I look forward to hearing from you


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