Understanding a Quiet Toddler: The Quiet Revolution
Children’s personalities are diverse because they are still developing. Some kids are naturally boisterous, and others have a fundamentally quiet temperament.
Imagine the following stereotype: toddlers don’t stop talking and run around until they drop. This idea of ‘a toddler’ is very ingrained in society. And it may be true of a lot of young children - to the point that if your child is often quiet or holds back from social interaction, you might wonder if there’s something wrong.
But is there?
Is It Normal for Toddlers to Be Quiet?
We often place adult personalities within a spectrum of introversion and extroversion. But this isn’t a helpful way of describing toddler personalities, because their personalities are still developing. They are still learning, growing, and exploring, and their brains are constantly expanding.
To put it simply, some toddlers might have more extroverted tendencies, and some may have more introverted ones. Some toddlers may be more quiet by nature, and this is no bad or unhealthy thing.
But that doesn’t mean that quiet behavior is never a cause for concern. However, treating a naturally quiet child as if there’s something wrong with them can cause more harm than good.
Common Misconceptions About Quiet Children
I was the quiet kid, and most of the time I’m a quiet adult. This can be difficult for more extroverted people to understand. Here are some common explanations I’ve come across that people often come up with to explain quiet kids - sometimes they’re accurate, but more often, they’re way off base.
Misconception 1: They are Bored
We all get bored from time to time. It’s a fact. And sometimes when a person of any age is bored, they’ll go quiet. If a child is more quiet than usual, it’s possible that they’re bored.
However, a toddler who is habitually quiet is likely entertaining themselves just fine. Feel free to try to engage them in conversation or play - once - but if they indicate that they’d rather not, then don’t push. They’re probably exercising their imagination.
Misconception 2: They are Anxious, Lonely, or Sad
Many more extroverted people can’t imagine being quiet, unless they’re experiencing powerful negative emotions like anxiety, loneliness, or sadness. Look closer. Even if someone isn’t vocalizing their emotional state, you can often find clues in their posture or facial expressions.
Is the child looking out, wide-eyed, hunched over or hugging themselves defensively? These can be signs of anxiety, or even neglect.
Are they watching others with a longing expression? It’s possible they’d like to join in, but don’t know how.
Do you see tears, a trembling lip, or reddened eyes? Then sadness is a definite possibility.
However, a child calmly and happily playing alone, reading books, or daydreaming, is probably not lonely, anxious, or sad.
Misconception 3: They Have Low Self-Esteem
Some people see a quiet child as being shy of social interactions. They may think that this comes from low self esteem or fear of others. It’s definitely worth exploring.
However, if your child says that they’re happy playing by themselves, it’s possible that they really are, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Listen to your child and trust what they are telling and showing you.
Misconception 4: They're Arrogant or Stuck Up
Some people misinterpret quiet, introverted behavior as being standoffish or stuck up. This is unlikely to be the case, especially with a toddler. Again, the answers can be found in facial expressions, posture, and through communication.
Misconception 5: Shy Means Something is Wrong
Some children experience communication delays. Anxiety can also cause a child to be shy, or even to become selectively mute.
If you’re concerned that your child’s quietness stems from a physical or psychological problem, it’s important to speak to your pediatrician.
Children with communication delays often express a desire to play with other children, however. And many times they’ll find a way to express themselves (or at least their frustration), without language. And if you look closely, you can often tell the difference between a happy, quiet child, and a shy, anxious one.
In short, a quiet temperament may be just that - your child’s temperament.
Why Else Might a Child Be Quiet?
Occasionally, a very quiet toddler may be a cause for concern. There are lots of underlying causes of quietness within toddlers:
1. Language and Communication Delays
If your child has hit their milestones, chances are they don’t have a communication delay. However, if this is a concern, speak to your pediatrician.
Some people, including some young children, do experience anxieties that can make them hesitant to participate socially. Social anxiety affects some toddlers. Selective mutism can also be an anxiety response. If you’re concerned about anxiety, speak to your pediatrician.
3. Introversion vs Shyness
Yes, there is a difference!
A shy child may want to be part of the gang, but may be holding themselves back because of fear of social situations or uncertain social skills. They may take time to warm up to new situations, or may lack self confidence.
Introversion is part of a child’s temperament. The introverted child enjoys spending time alone and will fall in with the group if and when they feel like it.
About the Introverted Child
In her groundbreaking book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain discusses the current bias in American culture, in favor of extroverts. She also gives validation to the value and contributions of introverts.
Parents interested in learning more about their introverted child—and quiet kids who want to learn more about themselves—might consider checking out another of Cain’s books. Quiet Power talks about the gifts that introverted kids bring to the table, and discusses the author’s own experiences as a “quiet kid.”
How to Tell the Difference Between Introversion and When There's a Problem
If you’re unsure whether your toddler’s quietness is a sign of a problem or simply their personality, here are a few things you can do. This goes for caregivers, too.
Observe your child. Consider the following:
- Is your child generally quiet, or only quiet in certain situations?
- Have they always been quiet, or is it a sudden or recent change?
- Has your child met their language milestones?
- Do they seem happy in their own company?
- Do they seem like they want to join in but don’t know how?
2. Talk to Your Child
If you’re wondering whether your child is happy playing quietly and/or alone, ask them, and take what they say on board.
If, on the other hand, they say that they are lonely, or unsure how to join other children in activities, then helping them to develop their social skills may give them the confidence they need to achieve their goal.
3. Don't Judge
Your child is their own person, and they may see the world in a very different way from you. That’s perfectly okay.
If you approach the situation as if you think something is wrong with your child, or that their quiet behavior is somehow undesirable, they could develop a low self esteem.
4. Seek Guidance
If your child hasn’t hit their language milestones, it’s important to seek professional guidance. Speech, language, and communication therapy can be extremely helpful for a variety of communication problems. Likewise, different therapeutic interventions can be helpful for anyone with anxiety that limits their day to day living.
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