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SocializingIntimacy

Is Your Child Struggling to Develop Close Relationships?

Two girls hold their arms above their heads, holding each others' hands to form an infinity loop.
Marcy Willard
Marcy Willard
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 11 May 2022
Published 18 Apr 2022

What is Intimacy in Childhood?

Intimacy in childhood is the ability to develop and maintain close, meaningful, and lasting friendships or relationships. 

Intimate relationships are…reciprocal. Intimate friendships are lasting, deep, and they go both ways. Intimacy involves being aware of personal emotions and the emotions of others. 

Intimate relationships are…complex. Intimacy is a high-level social skill that tends to rely on the development of reading social cues, having reciprocal conversations, and perspective-taking.

Intimate relationships are…emotional. Intimate relationships require that a child is aware of the emotions occurring in both people and in the relationship. For that reason, the following two important skills are required:  insight (knowing who I am and how I feel) and empathy (knowing how others feel and how to respond appropriately). 

A child who struggles with intimacy may have few close friendships. Relationships may be more surface level, constantly changing, or based on physical or outer characteristics versus inner values, personality, and commonly held interests and beliefs. 

Children under six are not expected to have this skill in place. We expect kids in preschool and early elementary school to have shorter-term friendships, for the most part. In the early years of a child’s life, they are more likely to be invited to all the birthday parties and group activities. It is not unusual to hear your child has a new BFF every other day at this age.

As children get older, this style changes. Intimacy typically first develops between 7 and 9 years of age or around the third grade.  As we get older, friendships become deeper and are more selective around shared interests and personality characteristics.

In teenage years and beyond, you will generally see kids have deeper friendships with multiple peers and potentially romantic relationships. 

Development of Intimacy in Childhood

Intimacy was included as one of the psycho-stages in the well-known developmental model proposed by Eric Erikson (1959) [4]. In a social skills framework developed by these psychologists, we considered 11 social skills, and intimacy tops the list. 

Three stages of social development

Stage 1: requires primarily motor skills. You might see kids playing at the park on the same slide or in a preschool using the same sand table.

Stage 2: requires primarily language skills. You might see kids sharing toys, playing make-believe, or talking about how to play a card game.

Stage 3: requires primarily emotional skills. You might see kids laughing over an inside joke, making elaborate plans for a sleepover, or comforting a friend in distress. 

As you can see from this model, intimacy requires skills to build on each other. These emotional skills are important. You have to understand how the other person feels and be empathetic when considering their emotional experience to make a strong connection with them.

If a child can only focus on their own emotions and not on other peoples’ emotions, peers will have a more challenging time connecting with them in friendship.

In addition to all the foundational skills in the motor, language, and emotional areas, intimacy includes advanced social skills like:

  • emotional reciprocity
  • emotional awareness
  • keeping confidences
  • offering care and support for a friend in need
  • perspective-taking
  • advanced conversation skills

If someone struggles to have insight into their own emotions or someone else’s, making a deeper social connection is challenging. To make connections, people have to be able to have a good conversation, including listening, finding areas of interest, and building on a social connection [3,5].

Symptoms of Lack of Intimacy in Childhood

  • Gullible: your child believes anything someone tells them; is often fooled or duped by peers
  • Knows a lot of people but makes no close friends: your child knows many children but does not have any close friends; not invited to parties or activities by “friends”
  • Taken advantage of by peers: your child is not understanding when others are taking advantage of them and can be lured into doing things like buying food or bringing candy to school for others
  • Keeps others at arm’s length: your child prefers not to be close to others and chooses to eat lunch in the library or an empty classroom; resists joining clubs or activities 
  • Friendships that last only a short time: your child makes friends that only tend to last a few months at most, and then you stop hearing about that person; the friend is a friend only in name and is not coming over or seeing your child outside of school
  • Well-liked at school but doesn’t maintain close friendships: your child seems to know a lot of kids but is not engaged socially. Instead, your teen spends the weekends at home with the family or spends the bulk of their time alone

Causes of Lack of Intimacy in Childhood

Autism: Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders often struggle with conversation, emotional awareness, and social-emotional reciprocity. Social and communication challenges are the hallmark of autism, and many children with autism are sweet, friendly, and want friends. They just have trouble with the social understanding to form meaningful relationships. It is a myth that autistic children are withdrawn and not social. Children with autism do much better when they have at least one close friend with whom they can share interests, have lunch, and spend time with in clubs, studying, and on the weekends.

If your child has autism and is struggling somewhat to form relationships, keep in mind that one or two friends may be enough. Often in the kids we have worked with, we notice that just one BFF can be just fine, even in middle school or high school. Of course, it is good to support your child in expanding their circle of friends, but it is not a significant concern if your child tends to keep to just one or two close friends.

Poor emotional awareness: Children can have problems with emotional insight for a long list of reasons. Sometimes emotional awareness develops late in children with ADHD or giftedness. In this case, your child may have trouble understanding their feelings about a topic and reading others’ emotions. 

If you ask your child how another feels, you often get “I don’t know” as a response. Your child may say they never think about feelings. They might puzzle over the question or give a highly intellectual answer instead of an emotional one.

Challenges in these areas, combined with difficulty initiating and maintaining conversations, can influence a person’s ability to form close friendships. Often, these children are polite and studious but also very quiet. For example, they can be uncertain of how to join in on a conversation about the Broncos, even though they watched the game.  

Emotional Distress: Children and teenagers with depression or anxiety may struggle to form intimate friendships. These emotional challenges can cause a child to tend to be inwardly focused, making it hard to be reciprocal in a relationship. They may spend a lot of time thinking about their own experience and have more trouble paying attention to a friend, noticing how they are feeling, and giving them support. Teens with their own significant emotional struggles do not have the bandwidth to be there for others in the way that is needed for deep friendship. 

Trauma: Individuals who have experienced trauma or challenges with a primary attachment figure may be more guarded and withdrawn, unable to connect in a meaningful way. Sometimes a child with a trauma or attachment issue may be more indiscriminate, entering relationships without thinking first about the quality of the friendship. Teens with trauma and attachment challenges are more likely to be taken advantage of in a relationship, not having the confidence to stand up for themselves or know that they deserve respect.

Often, working through trauma, anxiety, depression, or other emotional concerns requires the support of loved ones. People with a strong support network are more likely to make strides toward recovery.

What to Do About Lack of Intimacy in Childhood

Some children really have trouble making friends. Perhaps you have a unique kid with specific interests and a different interaction style. That’s okay! 

Research shows that all people really need is one good friend and one close relationship at home to feel good. No matter how unique your child is, there has to be one other kid who is just as unique and needs a friend just as much. Don’t give up!

On the other side, if your child is having emotional difficulties, having support from family and therapy can help build that foundation so they are ready to be there for a friend. In this case, you can work with your child to find a true friend. This friendship can be a major lift for their emotional state and self-esteem. 

Find peers with common interests: Collaborate with your child’s school resources to be sure they are involved in activities that will allow them to meet like-minded peers. If it is their interest, identify other children who love WWII or who will play Minecraft or Magic. Clubs like tech theater, anime, or community service can be great for connecting your child with possible friends. Ask your child’s teacher for ideas of who to invite for a playdate.

Meet your child where they are: Do not expect your child to display advanced skills too soon. If your child is in the motor phase, set up playdates at the park, zoo, monster truck rally, or rodeo. If your child is in the language phase, set up short playdates at your house where you can model and practice conversations, play games, and do interactive activities. If your child is in the emotions phase, set up activities like book clubs or sleepovers, where your child can practice sharing and learn more about feelings.

Connect with mental health professionals at school: School Psychologists or Counselors can guide your child to social experiences in which he might connect with other children. Be sure your child is not being bullied. If the school environment is full of bullying, bring this concern up with the administration at once. If it is a safe environment, your child may really connect with the counselor or psychologist and could join groups or go for support when needed. A buddy system or peer mentoring program can be helpful. Some schools pair an older student with a younger student to be a buddy and provide support. 

Provide modeling and guidance: Make sure your child has opportunities to practice socializing and conversation through supervised playdates and outings. Make comments on emotions in yourself and others in a neutral way to serve as a model for your teenager. Open conversations about feelings and share about your own friendships. Keeping your dialogue open with your child can be a significant factor in helping them improve their relationships.

When to Seek Help for Lack of Intimacy in Childhood

If your child or teen is unable to form close bonds with peers after about second grade, it is best to seek help from a professional. A cognitive behavioral therapist (CBT therapist) can teach emotional awareness, emotional reciprocity and give feedback on how to engage. A good counselor can give steps to take and review progress weekly. Your child’s counselor can communicate with the school counselor to collaborate in support of your child. A therapist who facilitates groups may have a social group for your child to join. The school psychologist may have social groups as well. These activities allow for practice and help your child with forming friendships. Keep in mind that your child is not alone in these difficulties, and most schools have resources for support.

Professional Resources for Lack of Intimacy 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: 

  • Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to provide an evaluation for diagnostic clarification and to provide a profile of your child’s strengths and weaknesses. They can be helpful in guiding you to the appropriate supports for your child
  • Psychotherapist: to provide CBT interventions have been shown to be effective in helping people make gains in recognizing and understanding emotions, improving perspective-taking and social skills, and managing co-occurring depression and anxiety
  • Therapy group: to facilitate connections with peers in a safe and welcoming environment. An anxiety group or friendship group may be worth joining either at school or in the community so that your child has a space to practice skills with help from a professional. The PEERs model by Elizabeth Langueson of UCLA is implemented by many therapy practices. You may search PEERs groups in your area. 

Similar Conditions to Lack of Intimacy 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.

  • Attention: children who have attention problems may have difficulty forming intimate relationships
  • Restricted interests or repetitive behavior: children who struggle to form close relationships may have difficulty with rigidity and restricted patterns of behavior
  • Anxiety: children who are anxious often struggle to engage socially and develop close relationships
  • Depression: children who are depressed often have difficulty forming close relationships due to a lack of social motivation or negative interactions with others

References for Lack of Intimacy in Childhood

[1] Huckabee, Helena, personal communications. This model of social development was advanced by Dr. Huckabee, a pediatric neuropsychologist with expertise in social skills and autism.

[3] McMahan, Ian (2009). Adolescence.

[4] Newman, Barbara M. & Newman, Phillip R. (2014). Development through life: A psychosocial approach.

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

Resources for Lack of Intimacy in Childhood

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

Koegel, Lynn Kern & LaZebnik, Claire (2010). Growing up on the spectrum: A guide to life, love and learning for teens and young adults with autism and Asperger’s.

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.

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

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

Cook, Julia (2013). Thanks for the feedback, I think (Best me I can be!) 

 

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