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Shy Toddlers: Language Skills Delayed?

Some toddlers are little chatterboxes, and some are shy and barely speak at all.  New research suggests that shy kids understand what is being said to them, but choose to...

Some toddlers are little chatterboxes, and some are shy and barely speak at all.  New research suggests that shy kids understand what is being said to them, but choose to clam up when it comes to responding

The study looks at why shy children seem to develop language skills more slowly than other toddlers. This issue comes up quite often because delayed speech has been linked to social struggles later in life. 

Are these shy little ones unable to produce language or simply choosing not to speak? According to study researcher, Soo Rhee, a psychologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder, the shier kids don’t show any language attainment delays.

Quite a few toddlers have shy temperaments, about 15 percent. The 12 to 24 month-olds exhibit what is known as “behavioral inhibitions.” They tend to be bashful around other people, cling to and hide behind their parent’s legs, and shy away from new experiences.

Why do shy children seem to speak less proficiently than their more extroverted peers? Scientists have their theories. Perhaps these children avoid interaction, so they get less practice speaking. Or the language struggles may come first, making children reluctant to interact with others. Another theory held that shy children aren't delayed at all; rather, extroverts are ahead of the curve.

Finally, some studies hinted that shy toddlers aren't really delayed — they "know it, but won't say it," Rhee and her colleagues write in an upcoming issue of the journal Child Development.

The study involved 408 families with same – sex twins in Boulder County, Colorado. They conducted home visits and had the children come into the psychology laboratory at 14 months of age, 20 months and 24 months.

At these visits, the researchers assessed each child's temperament by observing how much they cried, clung to their parent or exhibited self-soothing behaviors such as thumb sucking. They also tested language development by asking each child to imitate sounds, ask for help and follow directions. These tests determined how much language a child could produce, and separately, how much he or she could understand.

The shy children did show delays in their spoken language compared with more outgoing kids, the researchers found. But there was no such link between temperament and receptive language, or how much language a child understands.

The good news is that the lack of speaking wasn’t related to any actual language impediment.

The researchers looked at the growth in language skills over time relative to each child's behavior. If they found that initial shyness led to initial language struggles and to less growth, it would suggest the kids weren't practicing speaking enough, explaining their deficits. 

On the other hand, if the link between shyness and language showed up in expressive (spoken) language, but not in receptive (understood) language, it would support the notion that shy kids are functioning at the same language level but not displaying their talent. The latter was the case in this study.

And while delayed speech can be a sign of undiagnosed developmental problems, parents of shy kids may not need to worry. The researchers didn't look at brain development directly, but the patterns they found suggest there wasn't anything wrong with the shy participants physically or developmentally. 

"One worry that we have is that shy children might just be underestimated in terms of their language abilities, so parents and teachers might not make as much of an effort to speak with them," Rhee said. "It seems perhaps that with children who are shy, one needs to make more of an effort to help children develop their expressive language abilities."

Other tips for helping your shy toddler develop a more outgoing personality are:

-       Don’t refer to your child as “shy” in front of him or her or others. Being labeled often feels like a criticism. You might try saying “He takes his time getting comfortable with people he doesn’t know or sees often.”

-       Offer encouragement. Praise your child if he or she reaches out to others. Ask friends and family members to focus on the act and not how long it took to do it.

-       Be sympathetic. Let your little one know that you understand how they feel. Sometimes even adults feel a little shy when they meet new people.

-       Don’t avoid social situations. You might think you’re protecting your child from uncomfortable feelings, but in reality they need to learn – even if slowly – that being around others is normal and a part of life. You may want to arrive early – for larger gatherings (such as birthday parties) – to give him or her more time to relax and settle down.

-       Choose familiar locations. Choose activities that involve smaller groups in quieter and familiar environments. A story hour at the library is a good option. Museums that have dedicated children’s areas are also fun.

-       Most importantly, don’t criticize or belittle your child. You might think this is a given, but having a very bashful toddler can be frustrating for a parent. Nothing crushes a child’s confidence faster than unkind words. Teasing your child can also make them feel more vulnerable and hurt. There’s nothing positive about making your child feel bad. Let them know you love them just the way they are.

Sources: Stephanie Pappas, http://www.livescience.com/43100-shy-toddlers-speak-late.html

http://www.babycenter.com/0_shyness_11563.bc

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About Sue Hubbard, M.D.

Dr. Sue Hubbard is an award winning pediatrician and medical editor for www.kidsdr.com.  She is a native of Washington, D.C. who travelled south to attend the University of Texas at Austin and never left.Read More