Most babies and toddlers experience separation anxiety, but those with a “slow-to-warm-up” temperament are especially shy, cautious, and wary of the unfamiliar. They prefer observing before slowly joining in. They often struggle with transitions, such as ending one activity and starting another. They tend to be very sensitive to emotions – both their own and those of others.
Strengths of a Slow-to-Warm-Up Temperament
A slow-to-warm-up temperament presents challenges, but it also brings unique strengths. Slow-to-warm-up children tend to be observers, noticing details that others don’t. They may also be more likely to think before they act, leading to superior self-control as they get older. Because they’re highly sensitive to emotion, they can become exceptionally compassionate and empathetic. Once they feel comfortable with a new situation, they have the capacity to be as outgoing and adventurous as any child.
How to Support a Child with a Challenging Temperament
In this article we talk about how essential it is to accept your child for who she is. You can’t change her temperament, but you can help her manage temperament-related challenges.
Here are few key ways to help:
Prepare — Preparation is helpful for all little ones, but it’s essential for those with a slow-to-warm-up temperament. New babysitter? Invite her early and spend time playing all together. New daycare? Schedule a visit to show your child the building, meet the teacher, and see the classroom before the big start day. If your child is a toddler, give her a heads-up about upcoming changes. If you’re moving, for example, read toddler-friendly books about it and talk about what to expect. For little ones 18 months and older, pretend play is a great way to prepare for change by using toys to act out what’s going to happen.
Allow extra time — Whether it’s drop-off at a new daycare, ending playtime to start bath time, or getting used to a new pair of shoes, expect that your child will need time to process new situations, transitions, and change.
Offer support — Spend a few minutes playing with your little one at that new daycare, helping her feel secure in her new surroundings. Help her know what to expect by giving her a time warning before a transition (in a few minutes it will be time to put away your toys and get ready for the bath). Try using transitional objects: Bring one toy from playtime into the bathroom to sit on the edge of the tub, or tuck a family photo into her backpack for daycare. When it comes to separating from her, always say goodbye; sneaking out can cause anxiety for any child, especially those who are slow-to-warm-up. A goodbye ritual, like a kiss that you blow into your palm and then put in her pocket, can help her feel secure.
Resist the urge to overprotect — If your baby is afraid of anyone but you, it can be tempting to keep her happy in your arms all the time. You can gently get her used to other people by letting them hold her, even briefly, while you’re nearby giving her smiles and reassuring words. As a toddler, she may never join in the fun at birthday parties and you may wonder if there’s even a point in going. Keep taking her, and gently and positively encourage her to participate. As she gets older, you can step further and further back while encouraging her to approach new situations with more and more independence.
Avoid labeling, shaming, and comparing — Phrases like “don’t be shy” are like saying “don’t be yourself.” They imply that being shy is bad, and something to be ashamed of. Comparing your child to other children who are not shy can also be a big emotional blow. Even a seemingly-benign comment like “look, your brother isn’t afraid to go in” can make her feel like she is doing something wrong while her brother is doing something right.
Your child will likely continue to feel some degree of hesitation in the face of new or unexpected situations. But with sensitive support, she can learn to approach them with increasing confidence.