What is Eye Contact in Childhood?
Eye contact in childhood is the ability to connect with and show interest in other people by looking them in the eye.
Eye contact is interesting because people tend to believe that eye contact is needed throughout a conversation. It is actually more valuable to have eye contact as a way to periodically check in with another person. Staring, on the other hand, serves to make communication awkward, rather than facilitating social connections.
Nonverbal communication is an essential part of social-emotional development. In social interaction and in forming peer relationships, it is helpful to understand how to modulate one’s eye contact, body language, and gestures to show interest and engagement with other people.
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Symptoms of Eye Contact Problems in Childhood
- Unusual eye contact: your child may be uncomfortable or unaware of how to use eye contact to communicate when talking or listening
- Staring: your child may stare blankly while other people are talking, causing the communication to feel awkward or uncomfortable
- Tough ‘read’: your child may be hard to understand. People may say they aren’t sure how your child feels or how to ‘read’ their expressions to know what they want or need
- Flat expression: your child’s face may seem stoic, blank, or plain even when there are situations where strong emotions would be expected. For example, your child may have a blank expression when winning an award or getting the news that the family is getting a new puppy. This is often called ‘flat affect’
- Nervous: your child may get anxious or nervous when conversing with peers or adults
- Inattentive: your child may seem like they aren’t paying attention because they are looking away when people are talking
- Missing social cues: your child may get confused during social interactions due to misunderstanding social cues from others. It can be easy to miss social nuances when looking away or avoiding eye contact with people
- Sensory sensitivity: your child may find eye contact somewhat ‘painful’ due to sensory overload. They may feel that the eye contact from others feels invasive or overwhelming
Causes of Eye Contact Issues in Childhood
Anxiety: in childhood, mental health concerns like excessive worry can lead to children having a very hard time showing facial expressions and eye contact. Sometimes anxious children will seem very stiff and serious in their communication style. In some cases, the child’s hands may shake or their lips may quiver with emotion, even if they are unable to describe such feelings effectively. You may notice anxiety in body posture and a lack of eye contact
Autism: in childhood, limited facial expressions and poor eye contact are common signs of autism. Particularly in very smart children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a very stoic demeanor is common. If your child is also struggling socially, perhaps with pretend play or interacting with peers, parents may want to consider an evaluation for autism
Giftedness: in childhood, sometimes, gifted children will have limited facial expressions. They may seem overly serious, like a little professor or an adult. They sometimes use big words and prefer to talk in facts and figures, rather than feelings and relationship terms. Although not a common reason for eye contact issues, sometimes gifted children will have a unique communication style that may include unusual eye contact
Mild trauma experiences (trauma with a small ‘t’): in childhood, ‘Small t traumas’ are seemingly small negative experiences that happen in the course of childhood. Even with a more common distressing experience, such as family strife, school change, loss of a pet, or peer drama; a child’s long-term mental health can be impacted. If your child seems flat emotionally, it will be essential to get curious about what could be happening internally. Often, small t traumas cause significant and ongoing stress, leading to poor coping mechanisms and persistent emotional regulation problems. Sometimes issues with eye contact and nonverbal communication can be explained by these traumas. In this case, trauma treatment is required to help your child develop improved communication skills and emotional expression.
Significant trauma experiences (trauma with a capital ‘T’): in childhood, ‘Big T traumas’ are events that cause a significant threat to a child’s safety or sense of self-worth. These traumas include experiencing domestic violence, witnessing the death of a loved one, extreme bullying, or a sudden change in caregivers. It is very common for children to have significant emotional issues after experiencing traumatic events. If the child becomes traumatized or depressed, poor eye contact is a common symptom. Care for children with big t trauma experiences must be provided by experienced clinicians who are experts in trauma-informed care.
What to Do About Eye Contact Issues in Childhood
Children who have poor eye contact may have other challenges in the classroom and at home. Setting up the environment for success is essential for these children. As a parent, it is equally important to be gentle and compassionate toward yourself. Kids who are struggling to communicate can be challenging. Be patient with yourself and your child. Do not expect your child to open up to you instantly. Instead, create a safe and warm environment where the child can feel more comfortable making eye contact and communicating openly with you.
Sometimes, these issues with eye contact are not of urgent concern. If your child is struggling with several areas of communication, eye contact may not be a high priority. Kids may go through periods where they just don’t feel comfortable making eye contact and this does not always lead to other issues. The reason to be concerned is if your child is experiencing multiple types of distress emotionally, behaviorally, or socially.
The Top 6 Things Parents Can Do to Help a Child with Eye Contact
- DO expect eye contact for requests. If your child wants a toy off the shelf, DO expect them to look at you before you give them the toy.
- DON’T pepper your child with questions. If your child avoids eye contact they may need a little more space and time to unwind. Do not incessantly ask your child what they thinks or feels. Instead, offer your own insights and leave room for the child to join you. For example, you might say, “Wow, I was really worried about grandma when she fell down tonight.” Making comments like this can normalize emotional experiences and expression, and give a child an opportunity to open up.
- DON’T give up, even on your teenager. With your child, know It is developmentally appropriate for pre-teens or teenagers to pull away from their parents. Sometimes you may feel like you never get to talk to your child anymore. Our clinical experience has noticed that teenagers tend to ‘come around’ on their own terms. If it is late at night, you are busy working, or just about to run out the door, still take a moment to listen to your child. They may pick the most random times to share their feelings.
- DO get over it. Your child may have times when they simply are not comfortable with eye contact or other forms of communication. Give your child and yourself a break. It is okay to take some space and offer your child some space.
- DO cut yourself some slack as a parent. Your child, naturally, will not always feel comfortable sharing everything they think or feel with you. It is okay to give your child some space and take space for yourself.
When to Seek Help for Eye Contact Issues in Childhood
You may need more help if your child’s problems are more severe, resulting in getting in trouble at school for not paying attention, a withdrawn or sad demeanor, or poor social skills.
Sometimes a thorough assessment is a key to determining precisely what types of therapies and supports will help your child thrive.
Professional Resources on Eye Contact in Childhood
If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of their learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help. They may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.
- School psychologist: to help with the learning problems, attention, or emotional issues at school that may be associated with eye contact
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to understand whether or not a diagnosis such as autism, anxiety, or giftedness underlies your child’s challenges. A testing psychologist can evaluate cognition, social skills, emotions, and behavior and determine if a diagnosis is relevant to the issues with eye contact
- Psychotherapist: to help your child understand what is coming up for them emotionally. A psychologist, social worker, or licensed professional counselor can teach your child to manage and communicate feelings, including nonverbal communication and eye contact
- Speech therapist: to help your child learn nonverbal communication skills such as eye contact, facial expressions, body language, and gestures
Similar Conditions to Eye Contact Issues in Childhood
If your child is struggling with a similar problem not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for information about other related symptom areas.
- Behavior problems: your child may have poor frustration tolerance, anger, and aggression due to unexpressed emotions
- Emotional regulation: your child may cry or have meltdowns intermittently with the times of limited emotional expression. Some children who hold inside their emotions for long periods will often have dramatic upsets, tantrums, and meltdowns
- Social skills problems: your child may have trouble socially due to a lack of insight into their own emotions or awareness of the feelings of others.
- Communication problems: your child may have difficulty communicating reciprocally with others both verbally and nonverbally
Book Resources for Eye Contact in Childhood
Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind.
Purvis, Cross, & Sunshine (2007). The Connected Child. Bring hope and healing to your adoptive family.
Heller, Ph.D., Laurence & Aline LaPierre, Ph.D. (2012) Healing developmental trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship
Judith S. Beck & Aaron T. Beck (1995). Cognitive Distortions Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Second Edition, Basics and Beyond
Huebner, D. What to do when you grumble too much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Negativity. Yamada, Kobi & Besom, Mae (2016). What Do You Do With A Problem? Compendium, Inc.
Kroncke, Anna P., & Willard, Marcy & Huckabee, Helena (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
Sendi, Kevin (2017). Signs of Depression in Children
Books for kids on anxiety
Meiners, Cheri J. (2003). When I Feel Afraid (Learning to Get Along).
Green, Andi (2011) Don’t Feed The WorryBug.
Freeland Ph.D., Claire A. B., and Toner Ph.D., Jacqueline B. (2016). What to do When You Feel Too Shy: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Social Anxiety
Bender, Janet M (2004). Tyler Tames the Testing Tiger.
Zelinger, Laurie & Zelinger, Jordan (2014). Please explain anxiety to me.
Helsley, Donalisa (2012). The worry glasses: Overcoming anxiety.
Cook, Julia (2012). Wilma jean and the worry machine.
Cook, Julia (2012) Wilma jean and the worry machine: Activity and idea book.
Huebner, D. (2005). What to do when you worry too much: A kid’s guide to overcoming anxiety.
Peters, D.B. (2013). From worrier to warrior: A guide to conquering your fears. Great Potential Press: Tucson, AZ
Culbert, Timothy & Kajander, Rebecca. (2007) Be the Boss of Your Stress (Be The Boss Of Your Body®).
Foxman (2003). Recognizing anxiety in children and helping them heal.
Books for kids on perfectionism
McCumbee, Stephie (2014). Priscilla & the perfect storm.
Satlzberg, Barney (2010) Beautiful oops!
Pett, Mark & Rubinstein, Gary (2011). The girl who never made mistakes.
McDonnell, Patrick (2014). A perfectly messed up story.
Mulcahy, William (2016). Zach makes mistakes.