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Shy Toddler Prefers to Play Alone

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Shy Toddler Won't Play With Other Kids

Here is a recent email from one concerned mom of a toddler packing possessions and acting a little socially conservative:

I have a rather odd question. My son will be 3 in a couple of weeks, and he has been in a rather finicky stage. He insists on taking something from home wherever we go, whether it be his bug box, a car, or a stuffed animal.  I find it interferes with his play.  More alarming however, is he says he doesn’t like going to the park because there are too many kids. He stays back, and will only play if I start going up the structure etc, but rarely plays with other kids. Should I be alarmed?

There are really two parts to this question.

Lots of kids do this.  Don’t worry about that. You only need to worry about the issues it creates and then determine who is really having the problem? You or he?   

How does it interfere with his play? If he plays with his toy and not other children, that is his choice. Often children bring toys hoping to attract friends over to them to see their toys, even if they are not willing to share it once they’ve lured a friend over.

If he asks you to hold it, that is your problem and I advise you to say "no, sorry, that is your toy you brought. Holding it and caring for it is your job." If he leaves it – he looses it. That is his loss.  Or, stand and wait by the discarded toy and say "you have a job to do, when I see you have your toy, I’ll know we are ready to go" (of course if he doesn’t want to go this will work in his favour).

I have watched as my kids left things behind. After a few times of them seeing that it is not my job to watch their belongings they get better at assuming their responsibility. If he truly doesn’t care about it, that usually means that either he has too many toys, or you buy him things too frequently so he thinks they’ll be something new again soon enough.

Playing with Others
I’ll bet he is your first born child (the mom confirmed he was). They are typically slower to warm socially. Not because they aren’t social, but because they tend to be more perfectionist and want to "get it right" (mom confirms this is him to a "t"). That means  watching the field and knowing all the players before they jump into action. He is also young and most play is "parallel play" where toddlers play "beside" instead of "with" other children.

Advice: Don’t get busy trying to coerce him. If you do he will quickly learn it is a way to involve you, and get attention or concern so he’ll play up his shyness. Instead, let him be, show faith by being okay with his choice to play alone and let boredom and curiousity drive him there. It will come.

If you have a child who is more conservative when it comes to playing in groups or making friends, post your stories for others to hear by adding to the comment field below.  I’d love to know if they are also your only children or eldests.

About Alyson

Alyson has been blogging parenting advice for over 15 years. She has been a panelist at BlogWest, Blissdom, #140NYC and more. Her content appears on sites across Canada and the US, but you can read all her own blog posts right here.

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15 Responses to “Shy Toddler Prefers to Play Alone”

  1. Julie

    My son is 4 and he is the second child. When dropped off at JK he drops his knapsack off near the doors and then runs back to the gate around the JK play area and just stands there. It’s been over a month now and I know he plays with other kids in the classroom however before school starts he refuses to play – he just stands at the gate looking out. I have suggested he go and join the other kids a few times but stopped as I thought he might be more inclined not to if I insisted. I’m sure he’ll make it over to the group in time.

  2. SB

    My 2.5 yr old daughter is first born. She displayed stranger anxiety very early on and even greatly prostested being cared for by daddy. We chose to put her into daycare to help and it has. She has learned to “warm up” to people but the problem still remains anytime anyone new is introduced or if it has been a while since she has seen them. Often a one hour visit goes by and only once we are out the door has she finally decided to show her great little personality. I am concerned this is a sign of future social problems. Any suggestions?

  3. Alyson Schafer

    Hi SB,
    Thanks for the question. She needs some courage to put herself out there instead of playing it safe. Lots of people have a threshold that is more conservative, but regardless she will benefit from receiving encouragement. Encouragement is not praise nor is it a pep-talk. Encouragement is a complicated construct I discuss in my books. I have some post on the site too. Use the google search on the site to find more.
    I hope this helps.

  4. Mariam Reyhani

    My daughter is 3 years old. She is my first-borne and she certainly plays it safe when it comes to social settings. I’m a pleaser, by nature, and I now understand that it is my problem and not hers when she choses not to say her hellos or goodbyes. It makes me feel guilty and socially awkward. It makes me feel like I’m not “teaching” my child about social norms. I have tried to let it go and carry on the conversation myself without too much attention. Sometimes I’ll say “we’re still working on our hellos” just to make myself feel better (and not “judged”). We’ve had conversations about social norms and what’s expected in a social setting at family meetings. I know she knows. But it breaks my heart and it worries me that she stands back and doesn’t engage kids right away, or often fails to speak up when spoken to (when she typically is so verbal) – I worry that she won’t every come out of her shell. What are some encouraging phrases that I could use? What are some phrases that I could use to help build her courage?

  5. Erica

    I have 6 years old twin girls, both really shy, however one more so than the other. They are worse when I am around it seems. Even to get them to say hello to people they know or family members can be a challenge. One twin plays more with my son who is 2 years older and the other always plays by herself. I have often wondered if there are underlying anxiety issues? She is content on her own and seems to make friends but tends to stick to only 1 or two and not a large group. I too worry about them coming out of their shell, when they speak outside the home they are so quiet and speak in whisper form but that is not the case at home. I don’t want to keep saying to people “oh they are shy” We always encourage them to be polite and speak when someone speaks to them. Are there any other tools I can use to help them along, they are going into grade 2 in September, thought we would be passed this by now?

    • alyson

      Hi Erica.

      I think the book “Quiet” would be a great read for you. It could be that your child is a happy introvert in a world that loves extroverts. There is no issue with having a few dear friends instead of loving hanging with the crowd. Unless her timidity is actually interfering with her ability to get on in life, I wouldn’t worry.

  6. Michelle

    My daughter is 17 months and my only child. The daycare said she will only play in a group for a very short period and then she goes off and does her own thing. She’s still really young but I was super shy as a child so I’m hoping she’s not going to be like that. Any suggestions or am I worried for nothing?

    • Alyson Schafer

      I would not be worried. Worries are “problems we don’t have yet”. Developmentally, it’s common for parallel play at this age. It takes time to learn to play with others. Only children and eldest born children can be very skilled at self-entertaining themselves, so thats a good thing!

  7. Violet

    My daughter is in Junior Kindergarten now. She speaks English, but not very good, becaus mostly we speak our mother tongue at home. She complained that no one wanted to play with her in the classroom or on the playground. I thought about talking to the teachers, however, my friends told me not to bother the teachers because all kids were like that. They said if I bothered the teachers, they’ll dislike me. I don’t know if that’s true, and should I contact with her teachers?

    • Alyson Schafer

      Hello Violet, I am sorry your daughter is having a hard time finding friends to play with at school. Teachers are very helpful and want to have a good relationship with the parents of their students. Be sure to set a time to talk to the teacher so she can make time and is not rushed at the door trying to get on to some other activities she has booked. Let her/ him know what you want to talk about and explain your concern. Let the teacher know your trust their perspective and that you want to work collaboratively. Hope this helps.

  8. Kiara

    My 30 months old son has always been strong-willed and reserved. During circle time he’s always the one stay back doing all the movement by himself, instead of jumping into the crowed or getting closer to the teacher. But I can see he still loves being there. I’ve been teaching him saying ” hello” and “bye” since he was a baby. At around 18 months he hated saying ” bye bye”, then he passes that phase, started saying ” bye bye” to people when they greet him ( seems like he’ s in a hurry to leave). He went through this phase till he was around 24 month. The he could say hello when I ask him to do so, but we needed to keep the greetings and conversation real short, otherwise he would be impatient and got upset.
    Everything changed after I weaned him when he was about 28 months ( due to medical reason) .He started screaming when people greet him (even to the people he knows in our apartment). When I asked him to say hello, he cried really sad. Besides, he started having more meltdown when he doesn’t get what he wants. After 1 month of weaning he got meltdown less often. However, he still creams to people ( when they say hello, even when they look at him) . Also, he also screams to kids who get closer to him when he’s playing.
    There are sometimes he approaches all by himself some strangers and even starts “conversations ” with them. I assume he really likes them. But mostly he just scream. The scream is quite short one he will stop it when the stranger just walk away. But still, it does shock people and quite impolite ( he even screams at a baby!)
    I don’t know if it’s normal? Is it because of the weaning, or he just happen to hit the “terrible Two” stage at the same time? Are there any tips to help me and him go through this safely? There were some points I was so afraid to meet my neighbors and taking him to playground. It was also awkward when I had playmates time with other moms because my skin doesn’t like other kids getting close to him.

    • Alyson Schafer

      Hi there,

      No, the new screaming behaviour has nothing to do with weaning. When investigating a behaviour, we always ask “what is the purpose or usefulness” of the behaviour? Screaming to shock people may serve to aid him in avoiding to have to socialize with anyone other than you. It could serve to embarrass you or gain attention. While it is hard to stop others from their reactions to your child’s scream – the best advice is to completely ignore it – as if you’re stone deaf. In fact, children with deaf parents don’t scream or whine since its ineffective. I am just asking you to “fake” the same. Good luck!

  9. Sad Dad

    Hi Alyson,

    My son (2 and a half) cries all day at daycare. He’s very outgoing with adults and older children (even strangers which is fun at the grocery store) and we don’t get this behavior when he’s home with us but he’s an only child so there aren’t any other children around at home. When we go to the playground, he’ll tolerate other children being around him and sometimes engage them (things like taking turns chasing them around the playground and things like that) but he just can’t handle daycare. When we come to pick him up, our provider tells us that he absolutely refuses to socialize and even cries when their attention is drawn to someone else. This seems to go in cycles where he’ll be perfectly fine for a few weeks and then cry all day for months and we can’t figure out why.

    Our provider has tried everything they can think of like giving lots of attention and love, letting him go lay down in a quiet room, and things like that and he’s been going to the same daycare for over two years now with mostly the same group of kids (4-5 toddlers all the same age and he knows all of their names). He’s excited to go to daycare in the mornings and drop offs go without a hitch but at some point in the morning something sets him off and he can’t ever recover. One morning it was even a pillow being dropped (not even thrown!) on the floor and he was a mess all day. It’s getting to the point that he is taking over an hour to finish lunch because of the crying and he isn’t finishing it all.

    I really would appreciate any insight you may have.

  10. Colleen

    My son, who is our first born, is six years old. I have found he has always been shy and reserved in social situations, right from the time he was an infant. In a group run by our city’s public health, he was always turning to look behind him to check in with me; this was when he was about 8-10 months old. We have a park across the street that we would go to frequently, but he refused to step foot on the sand where the play ground was if there was even one other child there, younger or older. It wasn’t until he was four before he would go on the playground if there was another child, and only if I said hi to the child first. He was in a small licences home day care until kindergarten, and we kept him in it rather than placing him in a larger daycare centre because he seemed to thrive more in small groups. He is now in SK, and both his JK and SK teachers have commented that they would like him to work on sharing his ideas. They recognize he is a bright boy, and have used strategies like just sharing ideas with his teacher/ECE, sharing with other teachers, and bringing something from home to share that he takes pride in. So far, they still have a hard time getting him to share thoughts/ideas with his class, even just a couple kids. He seems more comfortable with adults, like the ECE and in his before and after care program. While he does play with kids at school, he still is hesitant to play with them outside of school, for example, if we go to the park and a classmate or two are there as well. He is very hesitant to go to a friend’s house, but then is fine once he is there. The only program we have gotten him to participate in without a parent is swimming, so we still do some parent and child programs, like skating, but he is about to age out of that option. I’m worried this could start to interfere with making friendships and opportunities, and continue to limit class participation, especially as he gets older. I’ve tired to talk to him to see what the barriers might be, but he usually just says he is shy. I’m not sure if we should just let him be? People have suggested something like karate may help.

  11. Why Toddler Refuses To Play With Others - Health Reporter

    […] not try to coerce her – According to Alyson Schafer, you shouldn’t try to force your child to play with other kids. Doing so will show him that […]


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