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What to do if your child would rather play alone

Hilary Benson

Published on: September 01, 2004

Updated Feb. 2009

Remember the classic children's story of Ferdinand the Bull? He was happy sitting under his favorite cork tree smelling the flowers, rather than butting heads with the other young bulls. His mother worried about Ferdinand being lonesome.

That story was published nearly 70 years ago. But because of high-profile school violence and bullying issues, some parents are not as content to let their child be alone. Instead, many are investigating how much solitude is a good thing and when it might indicate a deeper problem.

Ten-year-old Grant Daugherty of Yarrow Point loves spending downtime with his Legos or on the computer and will tell you that playing alone is, indeed, his favorite way to play. "You don't have to talk to anybody," he says. Though Grant has a couple of friends, his mom, Cindy Daugherty, has wondered if her son might be isolating himself too much.

Here are some tips for parents who may have concerns about their own child's behavior:

  • Know your child. It can be tricky to figure out if a child is truly satisfied with his or her lack of friendships. Parents can usually tell when their child is happy. But kids who are unhappy may be masking disappointment, perhaps acting out their feelings in an aggressive manner. Others may internalize symptoms, appearing sad or withdrawn.
  • Talk with the child's teacher. A parent may learn a great deal by asking the teachers questions such as whether the child works with others on group projects or if he or she eats lunch alone. A parent can also talk with the recess supervisor about what happens on the playground, and whether a child stays on the sidelines of play, unsure of how to join the group.
  • Carol Johnson, a school counselor in the Seattle Public School District, emphasizes the difference between kids who are shy but happy and kids who feel isolated because they are do not know how to make friends. "It is not necessarily that there is something wrong with that child, but they will in fact need help and suggestions for breaking into a peer group," Johnson says.
  • Facilitate friendships. Parents can act as "social coaches," says Dr. Carol Cole, a child psychologist in Seattle. Ask a child if there is someone he or she would like to have over to play. If a mom or dad can make the play dates happen, or if they hit on an activity the child truly enjoys, the young person may begin to forge friendships on their own. If that tactic fails, a parent can explore "friendship groups" or "social skills groups." Some schools and private-practice counselors facilitate these groups for the sole purpose of identifying words and actions that will plant the seed for young friendships.
  • Respect the child. Ingrid Olsen-Young, an expert in early childhood development in south Seattle, encourages well-meaning parents to choose words carefully. Use phrases like, "Hey, I noticed something," or "Let me help you be successful." By showing respect, parents should feel more comfortable nudging their children beyond their comfort zone.
  • When to seek professional help. When does isolation raise a red flag for long-term issues? True personality disorders are not typically diagnosed until adulthood. Still, professional counseling should be considered if the anti-social behavior is causing the child significant distress, perhaps keeping him or her from functioning in everyday activities. Also, parents should pay attention to how the child's social behavior changes over time. Cole says that most children develop the tools they need for making friends as they get older. She is most concerned about the children who go the other direction, showing more social anxiety as they age.

The vast majority of children who define "quality time" as time alone are perfectly happy, healthy and normal. If the child is able to nurture at least one friendship, exhibiting what experts call "social reciprocity," then parents can relax, and can cherish that child who enjoys the pleasure of his or her own company. ™

Writer Hilary Benson lives in the Seattle area. She has reported for ParentMap, Metropolitan Living and KING-TV.

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