Ask Dr. Marla: Helping Your Toddler Overcome Shyness


My daughter is almost 20 months old. She has recently become quite shy. She has a fair vocabulary, 20 words and one sentence (‘where are you?’) but she very rarely speaks outside of my home. Is this normal?


It is very possible that your daughter has some language delays. Typically by age 18 months (average) there is a 50-word vocabulary and by 18 to 24 months we begin to see an explosion of vocabulary where the rate of vocabulary growth doubles and triples. Although your daughter might have more than 20 words and simply be shy, I think it is reasonable to follow through with an assessment by a speech language pathologist.

It never hurts to be proactive! There is every likelihood that your daughter has more language but is anxious about using it.

What will a speech therapist do?

A good speech therapist will use techniques to help draw out the language. Often in children under the age of three, the approach to therapy is parent training using rules such as:

  • Do not speak for your child.
  • Do not quiz your child as this can increase their anxiety.
  • Rather than putting your child on the spot by asking a question that demands an answer – such as what is this colour? – you might make comments during play and interactions such as “that’s a pretty bird” or “I’m so hungry”. Without the demand for an immediate answer, children are more likely to communicate and participate.
  • Talk with and read to your child and create opportunities for sustained dialogue.
  • Consider preschool speech and language programs.

The shy question

Typically kids will first begin to put two words together such as ‘mommy come’, ‘daddy up’, before using a short phrase. Your daughter’s first phrase is interesting: “Where are you?” I wonder if there might be some attachment issues or anxiety issues. Rarely speaking outside the home (or in new, different, less familiar settings) can be seen in kids with anxiety or social anxiety disorder.

Try reading Keys to Parenting Your Anxious Child by Katharina Manassis, M.D.

Published in August 2010

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