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.
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
Age-Specific Challenges with Interacting in Childhood
As kids develop social skills, psychologists expect different skills in terms of social interactions. Kids navigate through three phases over the years. First, in young children we see more physical interactions. Next, in older kids we see more communicative interactions. Finally, in teenagers we see emotional interactions. See below to get a sense for whether your child’s skills are on track in terms of social interactions.
Toddler-aged social interactions
Is your 2-year-old not interacting with peers?
At this age, there is probably no reason to be concerned. Toddlers tend to prefer engaging with family members, rather than peers. They might play next to each other, building with blocks, or doing a shape sorter activity. However, psychologists would not expect a high degree of interaction at this age.
Preschooler-aged social interactions
Are you seeing that your 3-year-old does not play with peers?
If your 3-year-old doesn’t interact much with peers, this can still be a part of typical development. At this age, you will want to see parallel play emerging. When psychologists talk about an ‘emerging skill’, this means that your child is working on it but is not consistent with it yet.
You may also see your child engaging in physical interactions. That might look like taking turns on the slide or riding tricycles side-by-side. We often see two kids sitting together next to a big bin of blocks. They are building their own little masterpieces, only occasionally glancing at each other or sharing materials. These kinds of interactions are completely appropriate for this age.
Parents and caregivers would want to keep an eye on a child who actively avoids such interactions. In my own observations, I have noticed a child who repetitively pushed the stroller around the playground, actively avoiding other children. If that pattern were to persist, that is a concerning sign. In that case, you would want to allow the child to have some time on their own but gradually invite them to engage more and more with other children on the playground.
Adults would want to supervise very closely and make sure that the interaction is going relatively smoothly. If so, the child is likely to engage with peers more in the future. It is not that unusual for kids to hit or kick at this age. Although these behaviors are normal, we will want to intervene and support their emerging social interaction skills. We know from the research that if kids find success with these little interactions, they will likely participate more going forward, which will give them more practice. This is a positive type of feedback loop for young children. They have fun playing with others and so they are willing to play with them again, and the better they get at those interactions, the better they will continue to go in the future.
Are you seeing your 4-year-old not playing with others?
Around the age of 4, we begin to expect more in terms of physical interactions with peers. Psychologists are looking to see kids this age playing creatively and playing together. They might dress up and pretend to be superheroes. There may not be a lot of conversation and the interactions may not last very long. This is completely normal. However, you will want to see a child approaching other kids, sharing toys with them, and willing to play some creative games together with peers.
Early elementary social interactions
Is your 5 or 6-year-old not playing with others?
We want to see kids in early elementary school begin to chat with friends about common interests and invite them over for playdates. At this point, we expect kids to have conversational interactions with peers. A kid this age is typically able to introduce oneself to a peer, ask a peer to play, and chat about how to play a game.
At this age, conversations do not have to be long or complex. A typical back-and-forth exchange could be just a few words or sentences. It might sound like, “Hey, can I play?” and the peer may respond, “Sure, we are playing tag.” That would be pretty typical. A more advanced interaction might sound like, “Want to play rockets with us?” and the other child may respond, “Sure, we are going to the moon. You can be an astronaut. I am going to be the captain, okay?” This is a more creative play sequence and that skill should start emerging around 4-7 years of age.
Later elementary, middle school, and high school challenges
Is your 10-16 year old child not socializing with others?
By later elementary school, we expect kids to begin sharing confidences, showing concern for friends in distress, and maintaining lasting friendships.
As kids reach 3rd or 4th grade, they can start having emotional interactions with peers. Of course, a 3rd grader is not as deep or savvy with these interactions as a middle schooler. With a 3rd grader, it might sound like, “My dog is sick. I am worried about him” and the peer would say, “Oh, I’m sorry about that.” Although not a sophisticated conversation, there is a display of emotional reciprocity here. One child is expressing a feeling and the other child is showing empathy.
By high school, social interactions get increasingly complex. These interactions may include gentle teasing, sarcasm, and metaphors. Peers will expect that not every word they say is taken literally. A high-schooler could say, “It’s time to hit the road,” and expect the peer to understand that means ‘time to leave’ not to literally hit a road.
When issues emerge here, you will see the peers becoming irritated or confused by each other. Your child may say the other kids are mean or that they don’t understand them. In that case, parents and caregivers will need to intervene. Often, a counselor can help your child understand and navigate social situations.
Sometimes, it’s a matter of perspective-taking. For example, your child may feel another child is being mean or leaving him out when the child is just busy or has his mind on something else. Fortunately, these skills can be taught. If your high schooler is having trouble interacting with peers, there is a lot that professionals can do to help. A social group, a lunch bunch, a social club at school, or a 1-1 meeting with a therapist can really help. Do not hesitate to reach out to the school and see if there are social opportunities like these available.
Causes of Limited Social Interaction in Childhood
- 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. Other neurological differences like ADHD can also underlie challenges with social interaction. In this case, the child may be overly boisterous, pushy, or obtrusive in their interaction style
- 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: work with your child to think through social scenarios. Draw pictures, act out situations, 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: 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: look for small group activities for your child. You want activities that are not extremely competitive or reliant on collaboration. The best activities are structured where there’s an opportunity for turn-taking, and back-and-forth interactions. 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 cooking class, a book club, or a lego club that has fewer people and allows for some solo time
- Support emerging friendships: help your child connect with others who share the same interests. If your child loves Minecraft and finds another raving fan, work to get your children together often and support them in developing a friendship outside of 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.
Three levels of social interaction skills
There are 3 levels of social interaction skills. We expect physical interactions from toddlers and preschoolers. We want to see preschoolers interacting on the playground through chase games or taking turns on the slide. We expect conversational interactions from kids in early elementary. These interactions include talking about shared interests, establishing rules of a game, and working together in groups in the classroom. The highest level of social exchange is emotional interactions. We expect kids in later elementary, middle school and high school to be able to talk about their emotions, share confidences, and provide emotional support for each other.
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 trucks, but instead likes puzzles. 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.
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 for 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.
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.
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. Listed below are some professionals in the community you might consult for help with your child’s social skills.
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. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) interventions have been shown to be effective in helping children with autism or other social skills issues make gains. In treatment they learn to recognize and understand emotions, improve perspective-taking and social skills, and manage co-occurring depression and anxiety
- ABA therapist: to teach functional behavior. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) 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 (aka, pragmatic language)
- Attention: children who struggle with interacting may have attention problems
- Restricted patterns of behavior or interests: children who have difficulties interacting with peers 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
Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.
Barton, Erin. Educating Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.
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.
Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
Madrigal, S., & Winner, M.G. (2008). Superflex. A superhero social thinking curriculum.
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.
Trawick-Smith, Jeffrey (2013). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective.
UCLA PEERS Clinic https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peers
Books for kids
Brown, Laurie Krasny & Brown, Marc (2001). How to be a friend: A guide to making friends and keeping them (Dino life guides for families).
Cook, Julia (2012). Making Friends is an art!: A children’s book on making friends (Happy to be, you and me).
Crist, James J. (2014). The survival guide for making and being friends.
Eastman, P.D. (2003) Big Dog…Little Dog.