Dear Stranger: Here’s How to Speak to My Shy (Selective) Kid


I used to call my daughter shy, but then I decided that our children hear, listen, and believe what we say about them. And while she might actually be shy, she’s also very brave. And I would rather her remember that she’s brave and wild and adventurous than believe the label I give her every time a stranger tries to speak to her in public. Now, I don’t call my daughter shy. I say that she is selective… and there is a small group of people that she selects to speak with. Strangers don’t make that list.

I used to try and prompt her to reply. I used to think that my daughter owed strangers her attention. They were kind enough to speak to her. She should be polite enough to respond. I used to be embarrassed and try and explain her selectiveness. But recently, I stopped.

I don’t force her to reply… ever. As a woman who used to struggle with social anxiety, I have a little bit of compassion for my kid who doesn’t want to talk to people that she doesn’t know if she doesn’t have to. Requiring her to reply, when I already know that she won’t, is like pulling her from behind me and adding my expectations to this stranger’s request for her attention. It’s like pushing her further out when she already feels exposed.

So here’s what I do now. I usually try and redirect the conversation with the stranger, intervening so my kid doesn’t have to feel so put on the spot to speak.

Stranger: What an adorable _______ (bow, dress, sparkly headband)_____.
My daughter: *Silence*
Me: I think so too! It’s sure cold out there today. Are you staying warm?

The thing is, these conversations happen so often, there are some things I have learned about shy (selective) kids that changed how I engage and interact with those I meet in public.

Whether you’re a parent of a selective child, or you are interested in making a selective child more comfortable, please consider these three tips.

1.| If you greet a child with a comment or question, and they don’t reply, don’t keep questioning them.

I think it is in our nature to want a response when we speak. We are created for connection, and when we reach out, expecting a response, and we don’t get one, sometimes we keep reaching. If you notice the child is purposefully withholding a response, please don’t keep pressing. Recognize that the child is reserved and give them an “out” without expecting anything in return.


“Are you out shopping with mommy today?”
“Hope you’re having a great day!”

End the conversation without requiring the child to reply first.

2. | Don’t feel like it is necessary to point out that the child isn’t responding.

At least once a week, my daughter is told that she is shy by someone we don’t know. While I truly believe most people are attempting to connect with her by acknowledging her quietness, it changes the entire narrative. What do I mean? Well, if the original comment was that she had a pretty dress on, but because she didn’t reply, an additional comment was made that she was shy… the conversation changes from her dress to who she is. It’s hard to re-write those words spoken to her over and over again.

3. | Please don’t touch a selective child if they don’t speak to you.

This might just be a southern thing, but I can’t tell you how frequently people will reach out and touch my daughter if she doesn’t speak to them. Like I said, I’m pretty sure this has to do with their desire to connect with her, but if she’s not connecting verbally, they will actually reach out and pat her back or tickle her neck. This is one of those things that’s not weird until you stop and really think about it. But if an adult didn’t respond to something you said to them, you hopefully wouldn’t keep talking to them, call them shy, and then reach out and tickle them, hoping for a response. Let’s not do that to kids either.

As people, we’re all communicating in different ways, on different levels, and with different filters and expectations for the messages we are sending and receiving. It often takes work to make sure our hearts are heard clearly. When speaking to a shy (selective) child, using these three tips will hopefully help them feel more comfortable.


  • Leah says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I have a daughter who is still very young but has already been diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder. Being anywhere outside from home is incredibly stressful for her. At first I tried to prompt her to reply to people but very quickly realized that I couldn’t do that to her. But I love the way you engage with your daughter by not labeling her shy. I am going to start using selective. :) Thanks!

  • Leah says:

    Thank you for posting! This is speaks so well to how my daughter reacts 90% of the time to others. I love the advice, and do hope many are able to use it for other little “selective” kids as well.

  • Jackie says:

    Thank you for giving what my daughter experiences a name! I have been frustrated with how to deal with her quietness for so long and you have given me the gift of understanding her better and how to deal with over-friendly strangers!

  • Emma says:

    I love your perspective on this. I too have a child who is selective about who he interacts with outside his circle of trust, so I appreciate your thoughts on how to deal with this in a positive manner!

  • Allison says:

    Thank you for the post. I have a 15 month old daughter that is definitely selective about who she interacts with. And as a toddler, she has no inhibition about directly and loudly refusing unwanted interaction (she’ll start crying and putting her arm up to them). It amazes me the number of people who continue to push interaction on her when she’s clearly uncomfortable. The people who make comments about her disposition right in front of her also upsets me because I think she can comprehend that what they’re saying isn’t positive. Honestly, when we go out or are around a lot of people, I pray that people won’t want to talk to my cute baby. But your tips will
    Help me deal with this gracefully. Thank you!

  • Alyssa says:

    My son is very “selective” :) and I have had wise friends share their concern about me always feeling the need to apologize for his behavior or feel shame for his lack of response. I felt like they were right but didn’t really know what that meant as far as how to then respond. I feel like this is such a helpful, practical idea, thank you for sharing! Ah, may God continue to guide us as we parent these guys!

  • Michelle says:

    I hear yeah! I dont have children, but i work at a childrens play place. When parents come into check them in ill try and have a chat with the child and if they dont respond i dont keep trying. I have this mom that always forces his kid to say hello or thank you. I feel bad for him because he really doesnt want to. I dont even know how to react so i just say he’ll say it when hes ready.

  • Pam Weston says:

    Having been a shy child myself, I can relate to your words. If adults really thought about it, they would realize that sometimes they don’t even like their own personal space invaded.

    When I see a child looking at me I’ll smile at them and if they respond with a smile or wave back, I might say something or I might just wink at them. We have at least 3 grandkids who respond to strangers shyly and I try to deflect any adults who speak to them. Blessings to you and your little introvert! You are a wise mother.

  • Sandy says:

    Have you read “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking?” It’s excellent.

  • J D says:

    I was always called shy, so it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Don’t point it out and label the “selective” child. Yet, there comes a point when the child does need to respond to people speaking to him or her, primarily people who are in their daily lives. I am a teacher and worked with another teacher whose daughter would not speak in return. This is a child that I would see several times a week for over 3 years. Her mother permitted her to not respond to a “good morning” or a “hello”. And at that point it was rude and the mother was enabling the behavior.

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