9 min Read
My Kid Is a Loner
September 28, 2023
9 min Read
September 28, 2023
While pretty much every parent cares deeply about how their kids do in school when it comes to academics, friends and social interactions also play a huge role in a child’s self-esteem and happiness. But what happens when your child is, well, a bit of a loner? Here’s what Dr. Daniel Chorney, a clinical psychologist who focuses on using evidence-based methods to assess and treat paediatric anxiety and related disorders, told us about how parents can help their kids make friends and build their social circles.
ParentsCanada: Our kids recently started a new school year, and we know school isn’t just about grades—it’s important for kids to have friends and social experiences. This topic can be concerning for parents of kids who prefer to hang out alone or with one friend. For kids in their early school years, why is it so important to have friends and interact with peers for their social/emotional development?
Dr. Daniel Chorney: It’s safe to say decades of research has shown having social relationships is a positive indicator of social competence and better adjustment later in life—the “buffering hypothesis” suggests having this type of social support provides kids with resiliency and a buffer against life stressors that might otherwise have a negative psychological impact on them. That said, some parents become concerned if their children don’t have “enough” friends or don’t socialize as much as parents would like them to. In situations like this, it might be important to remember some children may not value social relationships as much as you do as a parent—in other words, it truly isn’t important to them, they’re not bothered by it and it’s not causing them impairment or distress. In fact, the opposite may be true—forcing kids into social situations may cause them more harm than good. As long as a child or teen has a few friends and feels supported socially, parents should hold off on forcing them into more socializing unless the child or teen expresses a desire to branch out. If a child is truly alone most of the time, I’d be curious if that’s their choice or if they are socially anxious (afraid of interacting with others despite a desire to do so). If they are anxious, there are many things that can help (including free online resources from AnxietyCanada), whereas if it’s their choice, parents should help their child achieve the other things they may value instead. Perhaps they value achievement or education or health—these are other common values.
ParentsCanada: How can you tell if your child is more of a loner at school? Are there signs or questions parents should be asking? In many cases, teachers will alert parents if their kids aren’t interacting with their peers, but how do parents know if they aren’t there?
Dr. Daniel Chorney: Most children willingly name other children they play with or interact with at school. It’s not uncommon for some parents to recognize a host of names they regularly hear when their child describes their day at school. Other children are more private or might only talk about one or two children they talk to at school. If they mention no one after the first few weeks at school—when most children are meeting other kids in their classes or at recess and they’re developing bonds—it might be worth checking with their teacher before the first month of school is over. I’d want to know if the teacher sees them talking with their peers, if the child asks questions in class and speaks openly, or if they are shy and hesitant to interact with peers or staff (suggesting social anxiety or similar). I wouldn’t advise a parent to wait much longer or rely on teachers to approach them—shy or socially anxious children often go unnoticed within classrooms as they rarely (if ever) present a problem to teachers compared with children who display behavioural concerns. Lastly, while not a perfect indicator, I often ask parents, “Does your child get invited to birthday parties or on play dates?” Very young children often invite their whole class to parties, but by grade school, children become more selective. If your child never gets invited out, it might be worth talking with school staff to see if they have any observations or thoughts about why this may be the case.
ParentsCanada: How can parents help their kids make friends at school, and how can they help their kids maintain these relationships?
Dr. Daniel Chorney: Depending on the child’s age, a parent may want to consider how involved they become. For very young children (like preschoolers), parents often take a very involved role and may even be present the whole time their children are on play dates. Older children will want their parents to help set up a play date or outing but not be present for it, as their social relationships slowly start to overtake priority from parents as the most important relationships in their lives. I often encourage parents to set up play dates throughout the week with other parents and on weekends if they are actively trying to foster social friendships. If kids are spending time together outside of school, this should transfer to time at school as well. If possible, having children join school groups they’re interested in will help them meet like-minded children of the same age—encouraging them to join bands, sports or extra-curriculars are all scenarios where friendships may develop. Alternatively, sports and group activities outside of the child’s school are a fantastic way to build community and social skills in children. Just remember, some sports lend themselves to socializing more than others—for example, children will talk and interact a lot more in soccer than they do in swimming lessons. Camps during the summer and other organized activities should be considered, too.
ParentsCanada: For kids who prefer to be loners in grade school, parents might be concerned about what this social isolation might look like in their future. So, does being a loner as a kid mean they won’t have healthy social habits through high school, post-secondary school and into adulthood?
Dr Daniel Chorney: While social isolation or lack of friendships puts children at risk of future psychological challenges, it certainly doesn’t guarantee it. We should be careful when making any sort of predictions about how anyone will turn out, so I would revisit my advice about talking with a child about how they feel with their friend situation and whether they wish they had more friends or if they are happy. If they seem happy and aren’t displaying signs of low mood (sad or angry/irritable, lack of interest in activities, fatigue or low motivation), it might be a sign the child doesn’t value friendships or see them as important in their life—not everyone is a social butterfly! Social skills are still important to develop, so I’d want to ensure the child is able to interact flexibly and adaptively in social situations, even if they prefer to spend most of their time alone. Can they interact with same-aged peers in a fluid way, meaning they don’t get rejected by the peers or made fun of and rejected? Do they display awareness of common social skills and an ability to use those skills (joining a group, asking for help from others, giving and receiving feedback, sharing, etc.)? If social skills are lacking, it may be important to develop these, even if a child isn’t interested in many friendships, as these types of social skills will be useful at all life stages and ages.
ParentsCanada: What can parents do to encourage their kids to be more interested in their peers?
Dr. Daniel Chorney: Aside from pointing out the advantages of friendships and social relationships (such as spending time with new people, exploring new places and activities, learning how to navigate social problems and relationships, developing closeness with people outside the family, etc.), parents can only do so much to encourage friendships. Most children want to have friendships—if they don’t have friendships, it might be more likely due to social anxiety than a true preference to not have friends. Ask your child if they get nervous talking to others, if they worry about what others think about them or if they have “negative self-talk” when it comes to friends. For example, the thought that “nobody likes me, so why bother asking?” should be addressed by parents or a professional to help encourage the child to approach these feared situations rather than avoid them, which can lead to more anxiety over time.
ParentsCanada: Many of us are fixated on the negatives, but is it actually okay for kids to be loners? Why or why not?
Dr. Daniel Chorney: I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable promoting or advocating for any child to not have friendships, given how much we know about the benefits of social support and friendships. That said, people are different and express a wide range of preferences when it comes to socializing. Some of us are temperamentally more inhibited and introverted, meaning we find joy in more solitary activities. Others can’t stand the idea of being alone and friendships bring immense joy. Where your child falls on that spectrum can range immensely, so I’d encourage parents to check in with their children regularly about how they feel regarding their friends and if they need any help or support in building more social opportunities, or if they are happy where they’re at (in which case, they are hopefully engaged in other activities they value).