What to Do When Your Child Prefers to Play Alone

I’m often asked how to encourage introverted children to be more sociable and to join in with other children when it comes to play. However,  I believe that this common worry is usually unfounded. In my experience, this anxiety tends to highlight more about the parent’s concerns and feelings, than those belonging to the child. Most often, this question comes from parents who are naturally extroverted, who are flummoxed by raising an introverted child.

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Parents should try really hard not to transpose their own fears and feelings onto their children. I tend to find those who struggle the most are parents who are naturally very extroverted, the life and soul of the party with a wide circle of friends, who are raising naturally introverted children who prefer to play alone, or with just one close friend. This is especially true if your child has not yet started school.

Parallel Play

Kids under the age of four will often engage in parallel play. That’s when two kids may be in the same room playing in proximity to each other, but really playing alone—like two adults sitting at the same table, but each staring at their phones, engaged in their own thoughts and activities. Parallel play is crucial, because it’s how children socialise before their sense of social etiquette kicks in. Children begin to understand that not everybody thinks and feels the same way, but before that, when they are incredibly egocentric, a young child will believe that the toy they are playing with is theirs—even if it isn’t and others want to play with it too. This is why some toddlers can seem so antisocial. It isn’t a problem though, it’s just normal development!

Some children genuinely prefer to play alone. I was one of these children. I’m naturally very introverted. My mother was a natural extrovert and I don’t think she every really understood me in that sense. She needed to be around people. I needed to be alone sometimes. I was happy to spend hours amusing myself, which I think my mother saw as a character flaw that needed to be ‘fixed’. She often spoke with me about being more sociable, joining in more and making more friends. I didn’t feel the need to do any of these things, but, in time, I did start to wonder if there was something wrong with me because I didn’t. As a teen, I questioned if my introversion (or what was labelled as me being ‘shy’) was a problem and something that I needed to change. This made a huge dent in my self esteem. As an adult, I’m still happiest in my own company, but now I’m fully at ease with being an introvert too. I enjoy socialising with others, but I love to get back home and be alone after and that’s OK, because we’re all different. Introversion isn’t a flaw. Extroversion shouldn’t be the goal, at any age.

Ultimately I think the key is in making sure your child is happy. If they are distressed at not joining in with others, then absolutely it’s time to do something (but forcing the issues is never the solution). In this instance I’d find some social groups, with activities the child enjoys, and invite a child they seem to favour a little more than others around for a no-fuss playdate, with the child’s carer. Here, it can be good to do an activity together, like visit a soft-play park, so that the emphasis is not on the child needing to initiate play. Sometimes children need work on their self-confidence too (something I’ve discussed lots in my ‘Gentle Discipline’ book).

Is Being a Loner a Sign of Other Problems?

Difficulty with social relationships can be an indicator of an Autism Spectrum Disorder and children with other special education needs, such as ADHD, may struggle to form relationships with their peers. If you feel that your child may potentially have a special educational need, then a visit with your family doctor is a good idea. In most cases though, in my experience, the issue is more adults expecting children to behave like adults. Or more specifically, like them!


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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