“Oh, she’s shy and she looks so lonely all by himself there…” So, is she really shy by nature or is she choosing to be alone?
A common misconception is that adults automatically presume that a child who is playing alone is lonely and sad. However, professionals understand that a child who prefers time on his own may often be content with this. In some cases, a child preferring to be a loner is acceptable. It is also a misconception that these children are anxious.
How It Differs
We need to make a very clear distinction between kids who prefer to be alone and those who would like to be more social but are rejected or ostracised and therefore forced to be lonely.
If a toddler wants to socialise and play with others, but cannot manage interacting and complains of being lonely, we need to react positively. We need to support and help this child, either to develop the language and social skills to be able to interact better, or to protect her from being bullied or rejected.
A Genuine Loner
We can determine if a toddler is a “genuine loner”, by noting that she isn’t distressed, doesn’t complain of loneliness or rejection and is generally less interested in interacting or playing with other kids.
Interestingly, about 30 per cent of infants and young toddlers initially prefer to play alone and gradually become more socially interactive as they mature.
Why Is She Alone?
There can be many reasons why a child chooses to play alone. Some naturally introverted kids are more content to play alone until they can observe from a distance, feel safe and take what they see as a major risk, by interacting with other toddlers. Imaging scans show that the neurology of such toddlers is different to naturally extroverted toddlers. Some are naturally shyer than others and will take more time to transfer from independent and parallel play, to interactive, shared play.
Some loner toddlers are also very bright, creative or imaginative and don’t like the more aggressive or repetitive play of others – they prefer their own imaginative games. Often it’s an only child, who experiences almost total adult world interaction in the first year or two of life, who initially who prefers time alone.
When To Worry?
Parents are understandably concerned if they have a loner child. However this can lead well-intentioned parents into trying to force the situation, such as arranging playdates or forcing social interaction.
This often increases withdrawal, as it’s far too much exposure. The child will often withdraw more, for example hiding in his room while another toddler visits. The same as forcing eye contact or demanding face-to-face conversation can further traumatise such toddlers.
What You Can Do
Find out which other kids your kid might occasionally engage with, checking with staff at his childcare or preschool if necessary. Then begin slowly, by having brief playdates where your toddler can easily move in and out of play or interaction.
The general rule is to progress slowly and safely. It is important to be aware that this can lead parents into leaving things and hoping that he’ll ‘just grow out of it’. Unfortunately, this rarely happens. The goal is to gently and gradually build his confidence and skills to allow social interaction.
This process needs patience, extra reassurance and positive input, which should see your child become content over time.