Q. My wife and I are both extroverts. We love to socialize. We have two girls who are much like us—and then there is our 8 year old, Jacob. He’s a real “loner,” spending as much time alone as he can get away with. When we send him to camp or a week with his grandparents, he never e-mails, texts or calls us. When he gets home, he doesn’t share his adventures, whereas his sisters can’t wait to tell everything.
Jacob makes good grades and can socialize properly if forced to. He seems to prefer not to socialize. He doesn’t make friends, seemingly preferring to be alone. Where did this “loner” behavior come from? Is there anything we need to do about it?
A. It’s not uncommon for parents to find some of their children to be quite opposite in temperament and behavior. As you suspect, Jacob may really prefer to be alone.
Some kids—as well as adults—prefer to be alone and gather their strength by being alone. For these people, being alone feels good, so they seek solitude. On the other hand, there are kids—and adults—who gather strength and feel better around others. That being said, there are kids who are lonely and spend time alone, but not by choice. These kids have been excluded by peers, perhaps many times and in cruel ways.
If you are not sure whether your child is a loner or a lonely child, gently ask the following questions. These questions work for any age child.
Do children at school tease or say bad things about some kids? If the answer is “yes,” you can follow up with:
- Did this ever happen to you?
- How have you tried to deal with it?
- What do you think would help?
Do you ever feel lonely or sad? If the answer is “yes,” you can say, “Tell me a little bit about that feeling.”
If your child is lonely, it’s good to help him understand the importance of believing in himself. You can also help him understand that having one good friend or mentor is more enjoyable than being accepted into a hurtful, teasing group. You can work with school personnel to decrease the amount of taunting and increase feelings of inclusion in the classroom and school activities.
The child who is lonely could possibly benefit from individual therapy and/or a group for children of similar age and problems. Being excluded and taunted at school can lead to serious problems, such as depression and even thoughts of self-harm.
Let’s go back to the child who likes to be alone. Here are some suggestions for you:
Discover and encourage your child’s talents. Find out what he is interested in, such as art, music, math, nature or helping the less fortunate, and help him find ways to explore and develop his talents in these areas.
Help him find volunteer activities around his talents.
Find a mentor with similar interests and talents. A child who is happy being alone often benefits more from a mentor than a therapist.
Have interactions with your child in a parallel sense, rather than sitting him down for a face-to-face talk. Just as little children play alongside each other, you can arrange times when your son interacts beside you. Examples include: folding clothes with you, putting away dishes or riding in the car. These are times when he is actually socializing with you and more receptive to your inquiries about his interests.
Don’t overwhelm your child with too many questions at once. You may need several chats over time to understand your child’s interests.
Don’t shame, lecture or criticize your child. No one responds well to these behaviors on the part of parents, no matter how old they are. Children who are “loners” are especially sensitive to what they perceive as parental criticism and disappointment.
In some cases, a child who tends to be alone a lot and is old enough may improve his socialization skills with a part-time job.
While this is an answer to a specific parent’s concern, if you think about it, these suggestions apply to children of all ages—and often to adults. Being able to entertain one’s self while alone and being able to socialize to a necessary degree are both important life skills.
In addition to the suggestions above, you will surely benefit from thinking about how the unique qualities of our children provide a challenge to our imagination on how to work best with each of them. We need to adjust our parenting skills to fit each child’s needs in order to end up with the best adult child possible.
Betty Richardson, Ph.D., R.N.C., L.P.C., L.M.F.T., is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.
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