3 Year Old -Selective Speaking

Updated on July 27, 2014
C.B. asks from Raleigh, NC
14 answers

My almost 3 year old jabbers away at home and in very comfortable situations, but never speaks to, or in front of, "strangers", even neighbors he sees frequently. He grows comfortable with new people quickly in the right environment, but casual acquaintances would think he's mute. He is in a daycare environment 2 days/week -they consider him shy and quiet and notice that he clams up if different teachers are around his classroom. He was slow to talk and still has some age-appropriate pronunciation challenges. He has been checked and does not have any ear/hearing issues. I am looking for tips to help him with this apparent anxiety or advice from anyone with similar experiences. Thanks in advance.

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answers from San Francisco on

I don't really see how being shy, quiet or reserved is a problem. As long as there is nothing developmental going on it sounds like this just may be his personality, and that's not something I would try to change. How does he display anxiety? If it's just when adults try to force him to speak or interact I would say the best thing to do is back off and let him warm up at his own pace.
He's only three, let the little guy grow a bit before worrying too much about his social skills.

5 moms found this helpful

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answers from San Francisco on

My oldest was the same way, and I think I went about it all wrong in trying to encourage him to speak to strangers and it just made him feel like he was wrong to not be comfortable in some situations, when in fact it is perfectly normal. He's 6 now, has come a long way but he is still quiet in many situations. One instructor noticed that he was more comfortable talking if he was doing something else at the same time (play-doh, drawing, etc.) If I could do it all over again, I'd give him a longer pause to respond to questions, and I wouldn't apologize for his lack of an answer when people want to have a conversation with him upon meeting him. His comfort is more important than an adult's. Sometimes people would ask me if we seen a speech therapist or spoke to our pediatrician - its actually perfectly fine to not want to talk to everyone! Good luck, mama!

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Chattanooga on

My daughter was like that, until a few weeks after her 4th birthday... Then BOOM! Little social butterfly.

I think you should just leave him be, and allow him to progress at his own pace. Even if he never really opens up, there is noting wrong with being reserved/shy as long as he is able to function.

I was a very shy and reserved child. I was only really comfortable around family and established friends. my grandma (who had custody of me at the time) thought she needed to 'fix' me. For a few years (from around 5-7 yo) she would do things like inviting other kids over (and tell me that I HAD to play with them) or have missionaries come to the house so I would have to sit and talk to them... A few times she even signed me up to give speeches during the church's children program... I can see where she thought these things were harmless and meant to "help" me come out of my shell. But all it did was cause me to become extremely anxious around other people; I just shut down and regressed to the point that could barely even make a single friend. Any friends I had, it was because they approached me and worked to get to know me. (Most of them started out as "pity friends" until I was comfortable around them, then they discovered I actually was likable.) It wasn't until I was in high school that I was even comfortable talking to new people on my own. Even now, when I have become comfortable being around new people and enjoy their company, I am still pretty socially awkward.

My little sister was the same way I was, but we were living with my dad again by the time she reached the age where my grandma thought intervention was necessary. My dad insisted on letting her so her own thing, and she came out of her shell naturally sometime in 3rd or 4th grade. She was still a bit on the shy side, but not unusually so. Now she is 22, and one of the more outspoken individuals I know. Lol.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Tulsa on

I agree with Mamazita. My son is 3 as well, and didn't talk to people he didn't know often, if at all, until fairly recently. Something clicked, and now he's a motormouth. Just let him grow at his own pace.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Milwaukee on

My child is 3.5 and is the same way, its developmentally normal for them to be cautious at this age and really quite good. You don't want them going up to every stranger or person they don't know and talking to them. He's watching you and trying to figure out who to be comfortable around and when. Its actually a very good thing that nature has created to keep our kids safe. I have a friend who's adopted child talks to strangers openly because she was raised in an orphanage early on and learned that strangers and those close to her are the same, which they are not, its a real problem. My other friend has a 3.5 year old and I only see them every 3 months or so due to distance, I have literally never heard the child speak, no biggie- all in good time.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from New York on

I asked a similar question. My kid is nearly 4. He was slow to speak, and is bi-lingual. While he used to be a constant chatterbox with family, friends, neighbors, strangers; recently he occassionally acts as though he is shy (hiding behind me, dropping his head, averting eye contact).

The advise I was given by the Mamas & Papas here was- 1. don't make a big deal about it, 2. don't label it (shy etc), and 3. don't add pressure to the situtation. It will fix itself.

FWIW, mine is in pre-school, summer camp, tae kwon do, and saturday language school. So he gets out and around plenty and sees plenty of people and has many chances to interract with people and strangers.

F. B.

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answers from Denver on

My youngest was like this at age 3. A few friends actually asked me if I'd had him evaluated for his "speech delay". I laughed - he COULD speak just fine; he just wouldn't in most environments.

Now, he's 4.4 and if he feels like talking, he TALKS (or yells at us).My advice is....patience.


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answers from Minneapolis on

Let him be shy, that is his natural state. Help him to be comfortable in situations by not pushing him. It really is OK not to talk to strangers, some of us just don't find it natural.

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answers from Melbourne on

I agree with the other answers. My son was also the same way. I hate how it is put out there our kids all have to develop at exactly the same time and if they don't they say something is wrong with them and want them to get checked by a doc. I was a very shy child. I never talked to anyone I didn't know and I turned out just fine. My son is almost 4 1/2 now and he never stops talking and says hi to everyone, its almost annoying lol. I am sure your boy is fine. Don't let anyone pressure you or him into talking more. He will when he is ready.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from New York on

My son was very much like this at that age. He did much, much better when we switched him to a Montessori school, where there was a calm, quiet environment. The teachers there had more early childhood education and were more accepting of diverse learning styles / personality types. Today my son is very confident and sure of himself. He'll still be a little reserved in new situations, but he's very articulate and stands up for himself effectively. He might have outgrown his extreme shyness anyway, but Montessori really, really helped.


answers from Jacksonville on

My advice is to not push him. He speaks, and is not mute, obviously. But is more reserved than other children. He is still very young. If you push, it may make him more uncomfortable, and create more anxiety.

Let him speak at his own pace and when he is comfortable. When he is older (4 or 5) if he still is reticent to speak, you can have a conversation about it with him, and ask him why he chooses not to talk in certain situations. Don't make him feel badly about himself for these choices, but you can inform him that some situations it is considered rude not to speak.. and then you can nicely guide him and help him recognize those societal situations in which a spoken response is appropriate and expected.

But for now, he is still young, and it isn't a big deal. Don't worry or draw unnecessary attention to it or to him.

Give him a moment to respond if someone speaks directly to him, without jumping in to "save" him. LET there be a moment of silence in which he can decide to speak or not... and then if he decides not, you can gently direct attention away from directly on him and be helpful in regards to the person who addressed him.

Do not refer to him as "quiet" "bashful" "shy" etc in his presence. You don't want to create a self-image for him. Let him choose his own.
Good luck.

~Mom to a once extremely reserved kiddo, who is now 13 and quite mature for her age, very well-spoken, and highly regarded by her teachers and other adults who know her. She also is not shy or timid, either. And performs piano in public routinely, with confidence.
Have no fears, Mama.



answers from Boston on

Well, there may be two good reasons for his reticence to speak in front of strangers. One is that his personality is that of an observant, careful person, who waits till he know folks better. The second is that, without actually being aware of it, he has developed the excellent coping mechanism of speaking to those who have the best chance of understanding him. Late talkers and children whose mispronounciations interfere with their messages often do this at that age. And you are so right that it can lead to anxiety, because as kids reach 3 they develop fairly sophisticated messages that they want to communicate, and can become frustrated that they have to work around their speech to be understood. Which one of us wouldn't?

I'd like to suggest that you follow all the great advice to honor his style, but also consider having a 3 year old check up on his speech with the local school system's speech and language pathologist. If it's been more than five months since he was last evaluated, a check in is very appropriate.



answers from Las Vegas on

You can check with your school district to see if he qualifies for their preschool program in your area.

My daughter is very shy. She is now 8 years old. At that age, I always encouraged that she speak for herself. So if she wanted to play, I at least made her say, "Hi". Eventually we graduated to what is your name and so on. When she was about 5/6 I would offer her an ice cream, but make her order it. If she couldn't do it, then she couldn't have it. Sometimes she would get up there and nothing really came out because she would freeze while in front of the person, but at least she stood face to face with them. Our recent challenge was her figure skating coach saying hi to her when she was at the rink for hockey in gear (big disagreement there). She walked right passed him. He had gone outside, so my husband took her right out the door and said to go apologize. Yep, the door opened, she fell out, and the door shut right behind her. She says hi to all of her coaches now.

It is a little rough, but it has taken us this long to get her this far. If we had done nothing about it, she would still be staring at people when they talk to her, as I see some do.


answers from New York on

my youngest was like that, I just recently found out he has an auditory processing disorder that makes it difficult for him to understand language, especially when there is more background noise, or stress. Does your son ever have trouble following verbal directions?

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