Dear Sara…

“When we teach our children to “be nice” instead of self-aware – which means, self-directed, self-governed, self-boundaried – we teach them that it is more important to be in a relationship, than it is to be true to oneself.”

~Shefali Tsabary

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This week I address a concerned parent over her child’s ability and desire to connect with other children. Here is our exchange…

Dear Sara,

Despite being very outgoing, extroverted, friendly, and energetic, my son has still not developed an interest in same-aged peers. Social groups have formed at the school and he is not a part of any of them. He likes to talk to adults and play with toys. But he is completely uninterested in making friends. I suppose this portion of the developmental clock starts ticking at different times for all kids. And he is neither shy nor lonely that I can see. At 3.5 years old, I predict that he will soon start to realize the benefits of friendships.

My only concern really is that, because he is often such a lone ranger, the inevitable aggression that many kids express and receive (all a part of normal development, emotion regulation, and autonomy) will be more challenging for him. (As an aside, I have seen him kick sand and throw toys at other kids, so I in no way perceive him as a passive victim!) Social networks are essential in their own right. But they also help to offset the stressful experiences all kids have as they learn to navigate the difficult terrain of toddlerhood. When other kids tell him he can’t play with a specific toy or be in a certain place, he just concedes and walks away looking defeated. I want him to have more confidence and to be willing to stand up for himself so that these kinds of interactions don’t simply reinforce his desire to play by himself. I believe the more empowered he becomes, the more positive outcomes he will experience which will, in turn, motivate him more to make connections with other kids.

I’m anxious to hear what you would recommend for this challenge.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Hello Concerned Mama,

Like most challenges I hear about and experience, I always recommend first…looking at things differently, and through the lens of the child. So many of our parental concerns about our children and the challenges they face can be projections, or manifestations of our own unhealed past experiences. And, of course, we always want the best for our children. We want them to be happy, healthy and thriving!

You say “he is neither shy nor lonely” and that he is “completely uninterested in making friends.” From my vantage point it sounds like he is perfectly adapted, well-adjusted and has a healthy ability to engage and disengage with his peers as he feels he needs to. Of course, I have the distinct pleasure of also knowing what a charming, sweet and hilarious kid he is, so I believe with my whole heart that he won’t have trouble making friends when he is ready to.

I believe too, that the particular skill of being able to, and even preferring to, play alone is actually a great strength…one that will serve him well throughout his life and budding relationships. His strong foundation of self-knowledge will allow him to navigate difficulties with others well, and perhaps not allow others to influence him negatively as he matures. His level of social awareness is developing rapidly, and he is very observant and bright.

The thing he might need when he seems overwhelmed by the aggressions that he is privy to (whether he is on the giving or receiving end) is time and a safe place to vent his feelings about it all in the presence of a loving adult. He might need reassurance that it’s okay to take a break from the problem to regulate his emotions before revisiting it. His abilities to cope with and gain new understandings about his feelings will come from actually being given the space and time to feel them…all of them, mad, sad, frustrated, even resignation. The hardest part of the process is remaining present while he feels these things and confides them all in you, and simply listening and reflecting back to him,

“You are sad about this, this is hard. When you are ready we can figure it out.”

As he grows, so will his skills in managing his emotions, and weathering all the disappointments that life dishes out. He will be able to handle those inevitable sorrows with grace if he gets lots of practice in doing so now. That groove of understanding in his mind and heart will be carved deeper if he begins to grasp the cyclic nature of feelings…that they ebb and flow, flood in and recede. And you will be there beside him, holding him tight while you can, as his first and biggest advocate.

All the best,
Sara

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