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Social Motivation In Childhood

Two kids sharing headphones.
Marcy Willard
Marcy Willard
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 09 Aug 2022
Published 02 Mar 2022

What is Social Motivation in Childhood?

Social motivation in childhood is the desire to connect with others and form friendships.

Social motivation has five key factors

  1. a desire to connect
  2. enjoying time around other children
  3. trying to engage with other children
  4. enjoying social settings and activities
  5. attempting conversation with others

Social motivation is a critical first step in social development. During typical social development, we want to see children coming up with what to say to others easily. They need to know how to start a conversation, keep an interaction going, and end the exchange politely. Children have to learn how to identify who good friends could be, find friends with common interests, and skillfully join a group of children who are playing together.

Social development also includes understanding social cues and rules. Children have to know when to be a leader and when to follow. They should know what actions are “too much,” too physical, or taking it too far. Some children appear to follow others, stand on the sidelines, and never engage in a leadership role, while others are bossy and too controlling.

Clinically, social motivation is an important factor to consider in child development, but it does not rule in or out a disorder that is social in nature.

Shyness, introversion, and ‘slow to warm’ are okay

Shy children are nervous when meeting new people but will approach peers once they are more familiar and comfortable. They can still make friends and develop deep connections with them over time. Shy children understand prosocial behavior but may experience nervousness and anxiety.

Introverted children can be socially motivated but may prefer time on their own. They may be less inclined to introduce themselves to people. Introverted children may not ‘get their energy’ from others. They might need time to ‘recharge’ after being around people for a long time, which would only be a concern if they could not make friends or connect with other children.

A ‘slow to warm’ child may have difficulty separating from parents initially but will eventually become quite social as they adjust and ‘warm up’ to the social interaction.

These personality types do not indicate poor social motivation and are probably not causes for concern.

What is the Continuum of Social Motivation in Childhood?

If your child is not necessarily a social butterfly or a bubbly personality, you may have no reason to worry. Consider the continuum below to see if your child appears to be on track.

Toddlers and preschool children should smile and approach each other. They should take an interest in similar toys, stories, or jokes. For example, a class of two-year old’s may all love to make the same funny face after one peer initiated it. Preschoolers learn each other’s names and start to seek each other out in play.

In kindergarten, socially motivated children will share information about themselves and answer questions. They also play together and begin to take turns and to develop as leaders, social allies, or followers.

By mid-grade school, children should want to have playdates or get-togethers with friends. They should not just be satisfied with seeing their close friends only at school. They should start to understand social relationships, know what to say to a peer, and recognize deeper interests and areas to connect.

Children in late elementary and middle school start to align with peers before parents in some situations. For example, children run around together at the swim team picnic, leaving the parents behind. They plan and initiate playdates, sleepovers, and activities and just rope parents in for permission. Children start to want to spend a great deal of time with peers.

When there are concerns on this continuum, you may notice that your child is spending a lot of time alone. They may avoid social interactions, run around on the playground without really playing with anyone, or seem almost unaware that other children are around.

Socially motivated but still lacking friends? Other times, your child may really want friends and understand very well that friends are important but still have significant trouble making social connections. The desire to make friends does not necessarily include the skills required to develop close relationships with peers. Children may want friends very much but find it hard to make lasting connections.

Social Savvy in Kids: Some children need to learn to take turns, communicate in a way that is not bossy, listen to others’ comments or ideas, elaborate on conversation topics, and read others’ body language.

Other children may need to learn what to say, how to express interests, and how to know what others enjoy. Children should begin to make friends and have close friends when they can master some of these skills.

Symptoms of Challenges with Social Motivation in Children

Children who are lacking social motivation tend to stand out from other kids. You may see them isolating themselves with a book at every recess or droning on endlessly on a topic like Star Wars or law enforcement, seeming unaware that their ‘listening audience’ lost interest long ago.

Here are some typical symptoms of social motivation challenges.

  • Isolated: Into topics and interests that socially isolate them, like solitary computer games or obscure facts 
  • All about books: Always having their nose in a book or reciting facts 
  • Fantasy world: Appearing to be in their own world; perhaps layered in fantasy OR always writing fan fiction; so that you wonder about a break from reality
  • Can’t find the words: Wanting to engage with others but having no idea what to say, doesn’t have a response for open-ended questions 
  • Awkward: Responding in conversation, but only after a long awkward pause
  • Indifferent: Unsure about why they would want a friend; what the purpose would be
  • Socially clueless: Interested in having friends or not but either way seeming clueless; appearing unsure in conversation and interaction with peers
  • Gets stuck on a topic: Often talks about a single interest and has a hard time shifting to another topic
  • Puzzled when asked, “What do you do for fun?”: Especially for a bright pre-teen or teen, often doesn’t have a response for open-end questions

Causes of Lack of Social Motivation in Childhood 

Here are some causes for a lack of social motivation in childhood.

Personality Characteristics 

Some children or adults have very introverted personalities or temperament characteristics. They are not excited about interacting with others and prefer independent activities. 

Intellectual Disability 

Intellectual disability includes deficits in cognitive ability (low IQ scores) that may lead to a delay in reaching social milestones. Global delays, not just in the area of language and conversation skills, can be present, so a child may be socially delayed as well

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism includes deficits in social communication and restricted interests or behaviors. In children, social skills deficits are present for ASD even while some children have social motivation and others do not. 

Social motivation in the context of autism

Some children with autism are highly socially motivated. As social demands increase and social communication becomes more sophisticated, these children can become lost.

They may not know what to say or how to approach others. They may perceive others as being negative or excluding them socially when they aren’t.

Socially motivated children with autism have challenges with social communication. It is important to remember from a clinical or diagnostic perspective that being socially motivated does not rule out the diagnosis of autism. Many children with autism want friends.

On the other hand, children with autism may have significant challenges with social motivation. This challenge may initiate from a history of social rejection and negative experiences.

Social perspective-taking and autism

Children with autism tend to struggle with social perspective-taking (understanding others’ thoughts, feelings, and behavior) and may not see why it is important to consider other’s views and opinions. They may be completely happy buried in a nonfiction book about rare bird species.

Whether or not a disability is present, social motivation is an important skill for social success. Kids need support if they are really unsure about joining groups, avoid social interactions, play alone, or are bossy and pushy.

Parents and caregivers are wise to keep a professional involved if their children are constantly getting into conflicts on the playground or are always playing alone. It may be that your child occasionally shows some social motivation but is always ‘stepping in mud,’ that is, having a social interaction that doesn’t go well.

Children can be taught these critical social skills; the best way to help is to start intervention both at home and at school as soon as possible.

What to Do about Lack of Social Motivation in Childhood

Some children who struggle with social motivation want to engage with others. Other children may not want to engage. 

What to do for the child who wants to engage 

DO practice strategies at home: Practice with your child. Set up play dates or activities with a clear structure to relieve some of the unknown. A playdate at the zoo, the pool, or at an arts and crafts center provides an expected structure. In contrast, going to a friend’s house leaves lots of unstructured time for questions like, “What should we do next?” There is more time for argument or disagreement. 

DO build their confidence: If your child struggles socially, you want to build their confidence in social scenarios that you can practice or talk about before. At the zoo, kids can take turns deciding what animals to see next. There are opportunities to take turns and compromise, and conversation topics are obvious. 

DO practice asking questions: Practice conversation for the playdate depending on the plan. If it is the zoo, talk about favorite animals, comment on what animals are doing, and learn about animals’ behaviors and habitats. If the playdate is for arts and crafts, practice positive comments like, “I love the color of your tree,” or “cool clay house.” Practice asking questions, like, “What are you going to draw next?” 

Asking questions can be a great thing for a socially motivated child to learn. When there is a long pause, ask a question of the other person and listen to the answer. 

DO let your child take ownership: Help your child plan the text message, call, or email to set up a playdate or activity, giving them more ownership of the plans.

DO select friends carefully: Finally, be sure you are choosing a good peer for your child. Choose someone your child likes, who has similar interests and is kind and friendly. Not all socially motivated children can read their peers well, and some may choose peers who would not make great friends. 

DO find weekly activities and groups: Children who struggle socially need a lot of practice in these social settings. It is relatively easy to get the socially motivated child to agree to an activity or playdate or party. Take advantage of this and plan something weekly, more often in the summer. Practicing social skills is the way to improve them. 

Additionally, consider a social skills group that is clinician-led with similarly aged children who have similarly developed intellectual abilities. This is another form of practice that can be very helpful for the motivated child who is failing socially. 

What to do for the child who does not want to engage 

This situation is a bit harder because some children reject social opportunities. It will be important to try to understand if your child’s perspective comes from a history of rejection, a lack of skills, or very restricted interests that they do not see the need to engage in socially. 

Perhaps your child has been rejected one too many times, perhaps they see others through a negative lens, or they like things to go their own way. It may feel like involving others would place undue burden. Tasks they find fun now would be less fun with another participant who might not do things just the same way.

Consider these ideas when you choose social activities to plan. 

  • Be strategic in planning the social activities. Plan things that are highly motivating because of the activity. Pick a peer who you know your child is comfortable with. Go to the science museum to learn about outer space, join a Minecraft camp for a week in the summer, go to the lake if your child loves to swim. 
  • Make the activity motivating and help your child build success in relationships with other children who also like the same things. Build skills the way we discussed above but be selective in the type of activities. Initially, stay away from busy picnics or birthday parties that might make your child feel miserable. 
  • Explain the importance of friends. If a child is not socially motivated, then teaching social skills includes the added step of explaining to the child why having friends might be important.

When to Seek Help for Social Motivation in Childhood

Poor social skills (whether motivated or not) can be a sign of a disability such as Autism. If you suspect your child may have a disability, it is worthwhile to get an evaluation and to pursue associated therapies. 

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders may or may not be socially motivated, but they are likely to be socially awkward. 

You may want to seek help if you see these challenges with your child

Can’t get a word in with them. When evaluated through tasks on the ADOS-2, a child may fail to let another person get in a word. They may give a lecture about air conditioners or tell you every detail about their fish. When you say in turn, “Oh, I have some pets,” this statement is met with no response, a change of subject, or an awkward “(long pause) Oh. Cool.” 

Nothing to say. Another child may look at the examiner and smile pleasantly but have no response to “What do you like to do during the summer?” or “What’s your favorite____?” The same child may have no trouble with the question, “What do our lungs do for our body?” The open-ended question can be daunting, though, and some motivated children just don’t know how to respond. 

Not reading nonverbal cues. Children with Autism tend to have challenges with conversation because taking others’ perspectives is challenging [1]. It is also hard to read other people when you are not paying attention to their nonverbal cues. Often, children with ASD don’t make well-coordinated eye contact, so they aren’t looking to see how the conversation partner is responding nonverbally. They don’t know when the partner is expecting a response or when they are moving on to something else [1]. 

All about facts. Also, children with ASD tend to have restricted interests. They really enjoy talking about a certain subject, which may quickly bore another child who doesn’t share that interest. They struggle with open-ended tasks and ideas, which makes sharing facts a lot easier than reciprocal conversation.

Professionals to Contact for Help with Social Motivation 

Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to provide an evaluation for diagnostic clarification; a psychologist may also run a social skills group to provide direct strategies and practice to improve social skills; these psychologists are experts in developmental psychology and can help a family understand any social challenges 

Psychotherapist: to provide Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) interventions that have been shown to be effective in helping children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) make gains in recognizing and understanding emotions, improving perspective-taking and social skills, and managing co-occurring depression and anxiety; may use a social responsiveness scale to further pinpoint the social challenges and provide targets for treatment 

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapist: to provide Applied Behavior Analysis using principles of reinforcement to increase desired behaviors like communication and language and decrease undesired behaviors like hitting/tantrums. For older children, ABA may be a good way to address social skills, conversation, and social perspective-taking 

Speech and Language Pathologist (SLP): to provide speech and language support. 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 Challenges to Lack of Social Motivation 

Social Skills: poor social skills may lead to difficulties with conversations • Attention (Focusing): children with attention problems may have trouble following along in a conversation [7,8] 

• Restricted patterns of behavior or interests (Repetitive Behavior, Perseverating, Rigidity, Rigid Behavior) 

Pragmatic Language: children who do not understand social language may struggle with conversations

 • Receptive Language: children with poor comprehension skills may have difficulty with conversations 

Self-Esteem: children with poor self-esteem may not have the confidence to make social connections or the willingness to fail or make a misstep. This reason is why building social skills and social successes can be so important because they build confidence

Book Resources on Social Motivation in Childhood

[1] Kroncke, Anna P., & Willard, Marcy & Huckabee, Helena (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco. 

[2] Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD. http://socialskillstrainingproject.com/books.html [3] Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support. 

[4] Mendler, Allen (2013). Teaching your students how to have a conversation

[5] 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. 

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

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

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

[9] Baker, Jed. (2006). Social skills picture book for high school and beyond. 

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

[11] Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers. 

[12] McConnell, Nancy & LoGuidice (1998). That’s Life! Social language. 

Children’s books on social skills 

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). 

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. 

Meiners, Cheri. (2003). Understand and care. 

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