Child Not Interacting With Peers

Four kids sitting around a pizza box enjoying their slices.
Anna Kroncke
Anna Kroncke
Last modified 23 May 2023
Published 11 May 2022

What is Interacting in Childhood?

Interacting in childhood is the ability to share, take turns, and engage socially with peers. 

As children grow, we expect them to take a more active role in developing relationships with others. For example, they learn to observe what other people like to do and share ideas with them. 

We want to see preschoolers interacting on the playground through chase games or taking turns on the slide. 

We want to see kids in early elementary school begin to chat with friends about common interests and invite them over for playdates. 

By later elementary school, we expect kids to begin sharing confidences, showing concern for friends in distress, and maintaining lasting friendships.

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Symptoms of Limited Social Interaction in Childhood

  • Not a good sport: your child tends to struggle with losing the game, keeping score, playing by the rules, or letting someone else go first
  • Takes a “my way or the highway” stance: your child would rather play by themselves than play a game someone else suggests or play it a different way. They become very upset if the game is changed or the rules are changed
  • Refuses to give others a turn: your child struggles to allow other people to play with their toy, be a character in a game, or share something that is valuable to them
  • Sweet and naive: your child is unaware of people’s motives and intentions, and it is easy for other kids to take advantage of them
  • Not reciprocal: your child struggles to understand the social rules needed for an effective back-and-forth, to-and-fro type of interaction
  • Plays the part of ‘follower’: your child tends to almost always go along with whatever another child wants to do regardless of their own preferences or best interests
  • In their own world: your child is only focused on their own interests and ignores the thoughts, ideas, and perspectives of others

Causes of Limited Social Interaction in Childhood 

  • Social skills deficits or delays: when children have a delay in social skills, it may be hard for them to get along with other kids or show an interest in playing with them
  • Attention problems: when children struggle to pay attention in general, they may find it difficult to focus on the interests of others or to interact with them socially
  • Developmental delays: when children have developmental delays, they may not hit social milestones at the same pace as other children. Although we want to see some level of interaction occurring in the preschool years, some children do not start playing with other children until kindergarten or beyond
  • Neurological differences: when children have autism spectrum disorder there are differences in the white matter connections in the brain. Issues with interacting can be an early warning sign of autism. In this case, children may avoid interacting with peers or struggle to make social connections with peers. Other neurological differences like ADHD can also underlie challenges with some types of social interaction. In this case, the child may be overly boisterous, pushy, or obtrusive in their interaction style. Want to know if your child's challenges are a sign of Autism Spectrum Disorder? Cadey courses are taught by licensed psychologists and walk you through the symptoms of autism and how they may present in your child. Sign up today.
  • Cognitive development: when children have delays or deficits in their cognitive abilities, they may be slower to make social skills progress. Thus, you may see skills like social interaction develop more slowly

What to Do About Limited Social Interaction in Childhood

  • Teach these skills to your child: with your child, draw pictures, act out scenarios, and demonstrate what healthy reciprocal social interaction looks like
  • Plan social interactions around your child’s interest: have your child join a lego or robotics club, pursue the swim team, or join a horseback riding class. Find ways for your child to engage socially that are likely to be successful
  • Have your child join a social skills group: for your child, research and find a quality social skills group where your child will be given a chance to learn and practice social skills
  • Avoid large group activities: for your child, look for small group activities with an individual component. When activities are structured and turn-taking, back-and-forth interaction can be modeled, and your child can improve their social skills. For example, you may choose to avoid soccer teams or baseball teams, which are large activities that require a lot of cooperation. Instead, you might try a cooking class, a book club, or a lego club that has fewer people and allows for some solo time
  • Support emerging friendships: If your child loves Minecraft and finds another avid fan, work to get your children together often and guide them to maintain a friendship beyond just chatting at school.

When to Seek Help for Limited Social Interaction in Childhood 

When considering seeking help for your child’s social skills, you want to think about the normal progression and compare where your child is currently. If your child is a bit behind but is functioning okay in terms of happiness and well-being, there may not be cause for concern. If your child is just struggling a little, there can be some gentle interventions you can try to support your child. In the case where your child is really having a hard time socially, you may want to seek help from a professional such as a psychologist, school psychologist, or social worker who is an expert in child social development. 

The three-step typical progression of social interactions

The typical progression of social interactions goes through three steps. If your child starts really struggling through the progression mentioned here, it may be time to consult with a mental health professional. Most schools have a counselor or school psychologist who can guide you toward the kind of support your child may need to develop more healthy social interactions. 

First, physical interactions

In the early years from toddler to preschool, we expect children to interact more physically and less verbally. Kids in preschool may even engage in ‘parallel play’ which is just fine at this age. Parallel play means that your child is playing next to a peer but not with the peer. 

With physical interactions, your child can share, take turns, and have back and forth social interaction. This requires a degree of cognitive flexibility. For example, they would have to understand that their friend doesn’t want to play with puzzles, but instead likes trucks. Your child takes time to play with trucks with their friend because it is important to them. 

Types of physical interactions include playing tag, sharing playground equipment, building with blocks, and eating a snack together.

Second, conversational interactions

As your child approaches early elementary school, we expect to see more language used in social interactions. For example, your child and a peer may each choose characters to act out in a game. Language-based interactions include polite greetings like, “Hi. Do you want to play?” These interactions also include sharing common interests. Your child may say, “I like pizza. What do you like?” 

With conversational interactions, it is normal for the conversations to be pretty simple and short in kindergarten and first grade. As the child progresses into the middle of elementary school or upper elementary grades, we expect conversations to go beyond a few exchanges and to flow back-and-forth naturally. By late elementary school and into middle school, conversations may go on for over an hour or more and can be deep and complex. 

Types of conversational interactions include polite greetings like introducing oneself, collaborating on a school project, talking with a friend about shared interests, and sharing a story about something that happened over the weekend.

Third, emotional interactions

As your child ages, you notice greater skills in social perspective-taking. Social engagement continues to become more sophisticated as your child gets older. Your child can read other children’s nonverbal cues and be aware of what might hurt someone else’s feelings. 

Your child has close friends with whom they play and share common interests. However, your child can discriminate between friends who are close vs. other classmates. In these emotional interactions, your child will need to be able to identify their own feelings and the feelings of others. Not only must the child know how the other child is feeling, but also how to respond appropriately. 

For example, in a younger child, if a peer is sad over a bad grade, your child may say, “Oh, what a bummer”  and offer a hug. In an older child, if the other child is crying because his grandma died, your child might say, “Oh, I am so sorry to hear that. I am here for you.” 

Types of emotional interactions include listening intently to a friend in distress, sharing one’s own upsets and disappointments, showing empathy and concern for a friend, laughing about an inside joke, and being trustworthy in terms of keeping confidences and showing up for scheduled events with friends. 

Professional Resources for Lack of Interaction 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.

  • Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider an evaluation for diagnostic clarification.
  • Psychotherapist: to provide therapy for social skills and emotional regulation. CBT interventions have been shown to be effective in helping children with ASD make gains in recognizing and understanding emotions, improving perspective-taking and social skills, and managing co-occurring depression and anxiety.
  • ABA therapist: to teach functional behavior. Applied Behavior Analysis uses principles of reinforcement to increase desired behaviors like communication and language and to decrease undesired behaviors like hitting or tantrums. For older children, ABA may be a good way to address social skills, turn-taking, and social perspective-taking.
  • Speech and language pathologist: to teach the language skills needed to communicate effectively within a social setting. An SLP is an important member of your treatment team if your child has language delays. Treatment works best if all team members can communicate with one another to make sure your child is getting comprehensive services.

Similar Conditions to Struggles with Interaction 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.

  • Pragmatic language: children who have trouble interacting socially may also have poor social communication
  • Attention: children who struggle socially may have attention problems
  • Restricted patterns of behavior or interests: children who struggle with interacting may also have rigid behavior patterns or interests. This combination is often seen in autism
  • Receptive language: children who have difficulty interacting with peers may struggle with comprehension of spoken language

Resources for Limited Social Interaction in Childhood 

Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.

Ozonoff, Sally & Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.

Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.

Trawick-Smith, Jeffrey (2013). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective.

Madrigal, S., & Winner, M.G. (2008). Superflex. A superhero social thinking curriculum.

UCLA PEERS Clinic https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peers

Barton, Erin. Educating Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Giler, Janet Z. (2000). Socially ADDept: A manual for parents of children with ADHD and / or learning disabilities.

Giler, Janet Z. (2011). Socially ADDept: Teaching social skills to children with ADHD, LD, and Asperger’s.

Books for kids

Eastman, P.D. (2003) Big Dog…Little Dog.

Brown, Laurie Krasny & Brown, Marc (2001). How to be a friend: A guide to making friends and keeping them (Dino life guides for families).

Cooper, Scott (2005). Speak up and get along!: Learn the mighty might, thought chop, and more tools to make friends, stop teasing and feel good about yourself.

Cook, Julia (2012). Making Friends is an art!: A children’s book on making friends (Happy to be, you and me).

Sterling, Lindsey (2020). The social survival guide for teens on the autism spectrum: How to make friends and navigate your emotions.

Crist, James J. (2014). The survival guide for making and being friends. 

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