Is your kid shy, or simply slow to warm up? Why being cautious gives some children a sense of control

Why their reluctance might be sign of temperament.

Some kids have a slow-to-warm-up temperament that can make them resist new activities or people. Here's how parents can support them. (Image: Getty Images; illustration by Katie Martin for Yahoo Life; animation by Liliana Penagos for Yahoo Life)
Some kids have a slow-to-warm-up temperament that can make them resist new activities or people. Here's how parents can support them. (Image: Getty Images; illustration by Katie Martin for Yahoo Life; animation by Liliana Penagos for Yahoo Life)

Anna Magnuson’s twin daughters have different ways of approaching ballet class. One usually runs into the studio first and boldly performs a series of pliés to capture the teacher’s attention. The other twin clutches a teddy bear, lingers a few steps back, and watches the action before joining the line of little dancers.

Their distinct personalities earned the 4-year-old fraternal twins endearing nicknames: Magnuson calls the outgoing one her “Lisa Simpson Twin,” and the naturally cautious one is her “Cat Twin.” In new or highly charged situations like a dance class, Cat Twin often hangs back to read the environment. With new people, she will only show affection after careful assessment.

“I used to worry about the quiet twin getting bowled over by her sister, but she doesn't lack power at all,” said Magnuson, a Los Angeles-based occupational therapist and mom of three kids. “She's just on her own time.”

Temperament is the filter through which a person experiences the world, and Cat Twin’s cautious nature is what researchers call a slow-to-warm-up temperament, which describes up to 15% of infants (and arguably adults, too, because we don’t outgrow our temperament). Generally, there are three types of temperament: easy, difficult and slow to warm up.

A slow-to-warm-up temperament has its benefits. A parent may not have to say, “If your friend jumped off a bridge, would you?” because children in this category are often careful observers who are more inclined to think before they act. Claire Lerner, a child development specialist and author, says slow-to-warm-up children are often highly sensitive, and therefore tuned-in, bright and empathetic.

While the benefits of a slow-to-warm-up temperament are plentiful, it doesn’t always come easily. Having this temperament can be a double-edged sword. Kids in this category feel most at ease in tried-and-true activities, which can also be self-limiting. They can be misunderstood as being shy or difficult, so it’s important to understand and encourage hesitant kids without steamrolling their innate sense of caution.

If a slow-to-warm-up temperament is so great, why is it misunderstood?

As a parent of a slow-to-warm-up kid, I’ve spent countless hours on the sidelines of sporting events and perimeters of rooms coaxing and cajoling my 7-year-old to join activities. In those fraught moments before I knew about the science behind the temperament, her behavior felt frustrating to me, instead of what it was for her: overwhelming.

One of the drawbacks of having a slow-to-warm-up temperament is that the behavior is frequently misinterpreted as shyness, defiance or something that needs to be challenged because we expect kids to engage rapidly with their surroundings, run into a birthday party and join the chaos in a bounce house.

“I think it's misunderstood because extroversion is valued in society,” says Shuli de la Fuente-Lau, assistant principal at a San Francisco Bay Area school and mom to two kids, ages 6 and 4. “The ability to be confident and to talk a lot is very doted upon.”

When children who are more sensitive by nature enter a new environment, they aren’t just focused on the potential fun; they are processing a barrage of questions: Who are these people? What is expected of me? Will these other kids be nice to me?

“Their brains don't turn off and they're constantly trying to make sense of the world,” says Lerner. “They're responding to what's unfamiliar to them and they're trying to understand how to feel comfortable in this new environment or with this new person.”

Look at the behavior through a new lens

Often, children who are slow to warm up respond to seemingly minor changes in their environment with big reactions. They may refuse new activities or shadow their parent at a school function. They may interrupt every other sentence in a grownup conversation.

A lot of the behavior are coping mechanisms, says Lerner. Instead of questioning the overreaction of the behavior, a parent can ask themselves, What does this reaction tell me? The mindset shift can open new avenues of understanding and support for a slow-to-warm-up kid.

“What they're really saying is, ‘I'm a little overwhelmed right now. This is new. I need some time and safety to begin to make sense of this new playground or this new classroom or this new playgroup, so that I can feel comfortable to join in,’” says Lerner. “A lot of what you're seeing is just a child’s attempt to gain some control over the situation.”

How to support slow-to-warm-up kids

Naturally cautious children generally prefer to stay in their comfort zone, but what they want (to stay home and build with Legos), may not always be good for them, says Lerner. Here are some tips on how to stretch their areas of comfort.

Make it a "have-to."

If there is a choice, cautious children will say "no" to a new activity. “Ask yourself, Would they love this new activity?” suggests Lerner. If the answer is “yes,” take negotiations off the table.

Validate — don't judge — feelings.

Once a "have-to" is established, let the child respond. Likely, they will try to derail the plan. A parent can say, "I know you feel hesitant to join the swim class. Also, you love swimming. Let’s think about how to help you feel comfortable," says Lerner.

Support transitions.

For kids who are slow to warm up, going from one activity to the next usually needs extra support, says de la Fuente-Lau. Give these kids reminders about unexpected changes in routine so they can adapt.

Teach kids to communicate their needs.

Prompt them with a script (“I am feeling ____, so I need _____”) or use a visual chart or hand gestures to communicate needs if words are difficult, says de la Fuente-Lau.

Practice and prepare.

Having a chance to preview and prepare can help children feel more in control and competent. Before a new activity, parents and their kids can walk the grounds of a new camp or role-play how to greet people.

Change is coming.

As an educator, de la Fuente-Lau can easily spot slow-to-warm-up children. They’re usually the last ones to gather on the rug for story time or other activities. Once upon a time, this behavior may have been misunderstood or even punished, but attitudes are shifting, says the assistant principal.

“For slow-to-warm-up kids, as they grow, hopefully they have adults in their life that are really cognizant of this and helping them not just mask their feelings but have better coping skills, so they know what to do in uncomfortable situations,” de la Fuente-Lau adds.

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