Should I worry about my introverted toddler?
June 28, 2015 5:52 PM   Subscribe

My two-year-old son is very introverted, and I’m not sure if I should worry or if there are things we should be doing to encourage more social interaction. Advice and perspective appreciated.

My son is 2.75 years old and quite introverted. He attends daycare three days a week and has other social opportunities at other times - we go to a weekly playgroup, and we have him in toddler soccer and music, which he seems to enjoy. Based on the reports from daycare and what we observe in these activities, he is very uninterested in any kind of social interaction with peers (in marked contrast to the other kids his age). Doesn’t seek out or engage with the other kids at all — basically acts as if they are objects he must manoeuvre around in order to do his own thing. He is a huge chatterbox at home, but to hear him talk around other people you would think he is hardly verbal. If another child wants to engage with him he basically blanks them, unless it looks like they are going to mess up whatever solo activity he has going on, at which point he gets distressed and tells them to “please go away”. If they don’t, starts crying.

He is pretty socially attuned in other ways in the sense that he is very good at following directions, waiting his turn, and sharing. He loves helping adults and he is very aware of what everyone in the room is doing at all times - he just doesn’t want to engage with any kids himself. I’m pretty sure he is not socially anxious: shows no clinging or hiding behaviours, his own behaviour doesn’t change after a period of “warm up” (he’s been going to playgroup and daycare with the same people for years), and doesn’t seem intimidated or worried when he goes into new social situations. Also pretty sure not autistic spectrum: no sensory sensitivities, no stimming or behaviours like that, has advanced language and great eye contact and interaction with us, etc.

At home, he is very engaged with us, though he also spends a lot of time doing his own thing with puzzles or books or playing imagination games with his stuffed animals or making music. That said, when upset or after daycare or sometimes just randomly he announces that he needs to go into his “cave” (his word for his bed) where he literally just sits and does nothing. For up to an hour. We’ve asked him what he is doing and he says “thinking” - when asked what about he usually says nothing or comes out with random things like “bunny has a nose” or “Monday is the only day with an O in it” (two recent observations). But aside from his cave time, which seems pretty weird in quantity if nothing else, he is really talkative, interactive, happy, and social around us. Looks like a completely different kid than the pretty subdued and quiet kid he is around others.

He doesn’t love daycare — doesn’t hate it, but typically doesn’t look forward to it and gets stoic, quiet, and sad when we drop him off (he rarely tantrums in general, so that is about as sad as he ever gets). His self-report about daycare afterward is usually that it was “okay” or “a bit hard and a bit fun” - the self-reported fun bits are usually “playing outside” and “eating biscuits” or the name of his one friend (see below). From the reports of daycare providers (which I receive second-hand because my husband picks him up) it sounds like he’s pretty much on the social periphery but doesn’t get in trouble or have problems. He will do the daycare activities but while basically ignoring the other kids.

For what it’s worth, he also seems pretty bright - has accomplished pretty much all of the four-year-old cognitive and language milestones on most developmental lists, and about half of the five-year-old ones. So I have no idea how much, if any of this, is that he’s just not interested in the specifics of what the other kids are doing. The things we do at home that are most engaging to him have to do with his obsession with astronomy, and lots of wordplay, puzzles, numbers, and reading (all his choice - he’ll play outside or with balls and stuff too but only at our request). I do know that many of the times in playgroup a kid has come by wanting to join in, he’s been doing something complicated (e.g., a 40-piece puzzle) and they’ve wanted to come and throw pieces around or something, so you can’t really blame him for being resistant to play. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem great if he’s learning that social situations generally involve defending his notion of fun against other (totally well-intentioned) kids, rather than learning how to have shared fun.

The one exception to all this is one kid at daycare, also a family friend we see sometimes outside of daycare. He enjoys running around like a lunatic with her. She completely brings him out of his shell in a way I have never seen with anyone else. She is the only kid he talks about ever wanting to actually spend time with. She herself is the opposite of introverted and quiet, and its not like they play puzzles or do his things together quietly: with her he wants to run around and be silly, and with all other kids he doesn’t want to. I have no idea why or what magic she has or how to replicate it with others.

He has no siblings (though a brother is soon to be born) and we have no family on the same continent at all. When we visited the US recently he did really enjoy spending time with his four-year-old cousin, but that was not something we can keep up given that we live around the world from each other.

So… my questions:

1. I have no problem with introversion - I’m introverted, my partner is introverted, I love introverts. But I am worried that he seems to be getting almost no real social practice at all, and the social lessons he is learning seem negative: i.e., other kids are for defending your things against, rather than a source of fun. My big long-term worry is that he ends up never learning how to be social and never has friends, and spends a lot of time when he’s older feeling alienated and lonely, or worse bullied. (Both myself and my husband dealt with these things as children and it led to long-term issues, plus pretty miserable childhoods despite overall happy home lives). On the other hand, he’s only two and I know things can change! This seems to be a pretty stable characteristic, but yes, only two! If you’ve had experience with a kid like this, should we be worried at this point about his social development?

2. Any suggestions for things we can do to help him now, or set him up better later? We already put him into as many social situations as we realistically can, and try to help him with them when we can too. But maybe there are others of a different kind that are more feasible, or behaviours we can model or do within them that will help? We sometimes talk about them with him too (at the time or after the fact) but since he has no behavioural or sharing problems it’s not clear what to say - there is nothing I feel comfortable criticising per se. I don’t want him to feel required to ignore or not do the things that he enjoys doing in order to “get along.” When asked or encouraged to play with others he just says he doesn’t want to (sometimes he will add because they will mess it up, but sometimes just says he wants to do X instead, sometimes gives no reason). I am really loathe to push it too much or say anything that makes him feel like he has to be someone who he is not - the one saving grace of my childhood was that I never doubted my parents accepted me for the little weirdo loner that I was. But maybe there are ways we can have these talks that are more productive? Like I said he’s pretty verbal and meta-cognitively aware for two years old; I just don’t know what to say.


Basically, I could be worrying for nothing. But when I compare the subdued, quiet kid he is in most social situations with the outgoing, incredibly verbal, engaging kid he is at home — and I think of my own unhappy social life as a child — it breaks my heart to think that he might be already learning that social relationships and friends are not for him. If there’s anything I could do now to give him more tools or make things better later on, I’d love to know.
posted by forza to Human Relations (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I was all ready to say he's just two-years-old (well almost three), and not to read anything into social interactions, but my overall sense is that your son is ahead of his peers. I recognize the thinking and the need to spend time alone, and as introverts I assume the signs of needing to recharge after a lot of human interactions is familiar. But I think the introversion is coupled with a mind that is thinking ahead of his peers, who are just as happy at this age to throw puzzle pieces in the air. Depending on how advanced his thinking remains, he may stay a step ahead, or it could easily all even out. He may still be fairly introverted, but not have quite so big a gulf between him and his peers. There can be quite a range at this age, and you call him two, and if he's in a room with newly minted twos, up to threes, there can be a fair range of capabilities there, too. Some two-year-old are great at fine motor control, others are sitting down with books and figuring out words, but they all tend to start coming together again after six or so. But right now he's going to have a tough time relating to his (paste-eating) peers.

My older daughter has similarities, both in introversion and being ahead of peers at that age, and she still can need some time to recharge or need to go to her "cave," but she has found her way to make a few good friends. I find it very encouraging that your son has a pre-school friend, trust me, that means a lot.

We have a friend whose son sound even more like your son and sometimes the kids get along like a house of fire and groan when we tell them it's time to go, other times, well, he just wants to retreat to his room and read a book. The best thing to do is remain flexible and try again another time, or with another person. Best advice I can give: don't force social interactions. (not saying you are). When I re-read your question I don't feel like I'm giving any advice other than you're doing fine, but well, you're doing fine.
posted by dawg-proud at 6:25 PM on June 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

You're doing fine. Be there, love him, give him what he needs - two year olds don't really play with other kids anyway a lot of the time, they play around them.
posted by Sebmojo at 6:27 PM on June 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

Doesn’t seek out or engage with the other kids at all — basically acts as if they are objects he must manoeuvre around in order to do his own thing.

First, I think this is developmentally normal.

Second, look, chuck this response if I'm off, but you seem defensive (okay maybe not defensive--just a little personally worried) and not happy with introversion even though you say otherwise. I'm an introvert. My partner is an introvert. My daughter is less so, but an introvert. She gets tired out being around lots of people.

This isn't a pathology; it's a preference. My shitty childhood had far more to do with my parents not accepting me as an introverted kid than being introverted -- do you know what I mean? A simple, 'I totally understand' would have done worlds for me.

My big long-term worry is that he ends up never learning how to be social and never has friends, and spends a lot of time when he’s older feeling alienated and lonely, or worse bullied.

Give him language. This is the one thing I'm working on with my daughter that I never got. I get tired out when I'm at a party for many hours. I feel easier if there are fewer people at a dinner table. Sometimes I find it difficult to talk in groups.

Being able to say stuff out transcendent. "I'm tired out from being around lots of people after a birthday party. I think I want to read a book." God, the relief to be able to say that to someone who knows what the fuck you're talking about. Given that, I think a kid can venture out, be less introverted than mom and dad -- I had to hide, I had no one to talk to, my daughter can try stuff out and go home and say 'yo, I'm exhausted, I'm going to listen to music for two hours and space out.'

Also, I'd say, as a dork who was a dork as a child and bullied and so on: Look, you have one thing you can do. You can provide a place where the kid can learn language to describe himself and where he can genuinely be himself. You can look at him with a spotlight shining on him from the heavens and say 'I like you. You are smart. You are delightful.'

You can hook him up with social skills, etc., but there is nothing more important than that.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:28 PM on June 28, 2015 [26 favorites]

He can and does play happily with an older kid - that's a great sign. He just sounds like he wants to play on a cognitively more advanced level than the kids in his age group. That's totally fine. My kid does the same thing, and adores playing with older kids. Her school moved her into an older age group and she is so much happier, and glommed onto the oldest kid in the group. Talk to the school about possibly doing an age jump - I was lucky that my kid is tall for her age so when she acts like a 4-5 year old, no-one bats an eyelid.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 6:31 PM on June 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

It's okay not to be interested in, or good at, interacting with other two-year-olds when you are also two. This is far, far different from not being interested in interacting with other thirty-somethings when you are thirty-something. Imagine that two-year-olds were scaled up to your height and weight. Unpredictable, not particularly verbal or cooperative, and terrifying! He is doing great just not freaking out.

I think the best thing you guys can do for him is to (a) not worry or push anything and (b) give him plenty of time with that one magical friend. Having one friend you understand well and actually have disagreements with is probably better for social development than being able to deal with lots of kids at daycare anyway.

A more mixed-age daycare/preschool might be ideal if you're choosing among childcare options in the next few years. For now the gap between him and age-peers may be largely language: a lot of two-year-olds just don't talk that much (they're often still be forming two-word sentences or 'telegraphic' speech) and he may have written them off for a while on that basis, only to be delighted later when it turns out he can interact with them after all!

Overall, here's one vote for "you're overthinking it but he's lucky to have you keeping an eye out."
posted by cogitron at 6:31 PM on June 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

Too soon to worry, IMO.

Little Murrey had these tendencies too...not quite as extreme, but certainly leaned in that direction. One reason was because he was very late to start talking -- but he is also an introvert. His parents are likewise 2 introverts.

Little Murrey had one friend he felt very super comfortable with from 3 until he was 4.5 years old. At that time, his master teacher at a university lab school (a PhD in child development) decided he was ready and she started creating situations that required Little Murrey to interact more with others. In essence, she pushed him outside of his comfort box. But it was slow and non-threatening and methodical. And it worked.

Little Murrey is nearly 6 years old, is still an introvert, and has many friends and is comfortable with groups.

Give him time and don't push too soon but I think it will be fine.
posted by murrey at 6:33 PM on June 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

I highly recommend Quiet by Susan Cain in terms of worrying about the long term for your child...that is, don't. Introverts are important and chances are good he'll work it out.

That said, anecdata: At 2 I swore up and down my elder son was the biggest extrovert. At 9: err, nope.

The developmental curves are still so variable...your child might just be acquiring other skills before going after social ones. I would really not worry too much about trying to mitigate something that may not be an issue in another year. You sound like an engaged, caring mom who will figure it out.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:35 PM on June 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

To add something - if he's just Sitting and Thinking then space to do that is a lovely gift you can give him.
posted by Sebmojo at 6:38 PM on June 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

My daughter was like this (for a good bit past 2.75 too); she's pushing towards 3 and a 1/2 now and it's like a switch was just suddenly flipped and she wants to have friends and play with strangers.

I'm not being good at being chill with regard to parenting but just not stressing out about it and letting her be her was the right thing to do for us.
posted by gerryblog at 7:43 PM on June 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

My son was like this in his social interactions for a long time. He's almost 4.5 and still has a hard time with groups of strange children, but he will talk to solo kids on the playground and has a few good friends. I think chilling out about it, pushing gently, and continuing to expose him to new kids all help.
posted by linettasky at 8:52 PM on June 28, 2015

I agree with whoever said above that you can help him by giving him vocabulary (although it sounds like he's got it pretty well figured out, with terms like "cave" and "thinking!") "I need quiet time" or "I'm doing my own thing" could also be useful descriptors.

I think you and he are doing absolutely fine. I also think you should not be pushing him at all, gently or otherwise. He goes to daycare; he has the option every day of socializing more. He will, or won't, do it when he wants to, or not. He sounds smart and confident and if he doesn't feel like socializing with three year olds, honestly who can blame him? But the bigger thing is that it won't do any good to push him. Three year olds do what they wanna do. You're not going to make him enjoy those other three year olds any more than he does. Don't fight it and don't make him feel like there's something wrong with his innate preferences.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:06 PM on June 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

We were just at a picnic yesterday with 3 kids between 2-3 and they didn't play with each other... As said above, they played around each other.
posted by pairofshades at 11:39 PM on June 28, 2015

I think the most surprising thing about your description is that he expresses his needs so maturely! He sounds like my four year old.
I do think he sounds very introverted but I would give it another year or two. My daughter only started socialising with 3,5 and successfully socialising with4. Before that, I was worried, too.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:20 AM on June 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Could it be that he wants to engage with this one other child because he initially met her as a family friend, on home turf and in a less frenetic setting? I know that my particular brand of introversion makes it much easier for me to relate to others one on one and in very small groups. And that after I've gotten to know people individually it's also more possible to feel more comfortable at a larger gathering where they are assembled. Maybe when he is it school the social environment is just too overwhelming for him to be able to connect. Maybe if you plucked one of these other children out of the usual context and had a one on one play date at home, he would react more socially.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 12:30 AM on June 29, 2015

Play development usually goes through stages: individual play, parallel play, social play. Some kids take longer to progress through that than others or, I suppose, progress differently.

One of my kids had absolutely no interest in playing with other kids at daycare, and things only changed when he entered kindergarten (at age 4). Another had her little circle of friends all mapped out. Kids are different. Have the people at your daycare expressed any concern? They see a lot of kids.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:58 AM on June 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: For all of the people pointing out that this is developmentally normal and if there was something to worry about, the daycare providers might have said something -- my main worry comes / came from the huge contrast between his very verbal, very engaged home behaviour and his subdued, withdrawn with-peers behaviour (a contrast which the people who observe him in just one context wouldn't notice). It is that contrast that makes me worry like this isn't just "who he is", but that he is muting his own personality down around others or has started learning that social relationships with other kids are no fun and therefore he shouldn't even try. If he were just a quiet, subdued kid in general I might be less worried.

THAT SAID, I am still finding these answers very reassuring, so thank you thank you thank you. If I'm ambivalent about introvertedness at all, it's because of my own shitty childhood experiences (despite supportive parents of my own)... but the chorus of "it's probably fine" and "he's still so young!" is really good to hear and makes sense. And I think some of the other suggestions, like about finding older children for him to play with, also make a lot of sense (though not all are really feasible to do anything about right now, still something to keep an eye open for).

Anyway, the main message I'm taking from this is that the best thing I can do is to just not push him -- still expose him to social situations and try to give him tools (like language), but other than that let him be his own little splendid self and unconditionally love him for whoever he is. Which should be no problem because I do!
posted by forza at 5:11 AM on June 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

My 2.5 year old is ambivalent toward kids his own age but adores older girls (way older - like 7-18 year old girls). The kids his age get into his physical space and steal his toys, whereas the older girls kind of adopt him as their little mascot. Maybe your son would prefer to play with older kids, too, but is separated from them at preschool by age?

That said, your son sounds like a fascinating, delightful, super smart little kid.
posted by Maarika at 6:22 AM on June 29, 2015

At 2.75, is he right on the cusp of going into 3-year-old preschool? My kid got really irritated with the younger kids in the month or two before he moved up for the same kinds of reasons; they kept messing with his plans, they were slower and louder and took his things. He moved up to preschool and was a completely different kid, now surrounded by 3 and 4 year olds who were playing with much more interesting toys, and who had higher behavioral expectations. If he's close to moving up you may want to talk to the teachers about speeding up that timeline.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:47 AM on June 29, 2015

Nothing to worry about EXCEPT that you should find a childcare situation that is either more individuated or more advanced. For example, at my son's preschool they give the more advanced kids more advanced tasks. Your little one seems ready to be reading at the very least.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:00 AM on June 29, 2015

Response by poster: I've been thinking a lot about the "have him play with older kids" idea. I think it's a really good one, and would probably help; it would certainly reveal how much of this is just that he wants to play in a different way than he's getting from his peers. Plus, he's big for his age and physically fairly confident so that would make it easier. But I keep getting stuck figuring out the logistics:

- The way our daycare works is that they move all the kids up in a block, so he's actually one of the younger kids in his room and they'll all be moved up together to the next one in about six months. The next-highest age group is the highest in the daycare, and I'm hesitant to ask them to move him to it earlier, since (a) the aforementioned baby brother is arriving in just a few weeks and the last thing he needs is another major disruption; (b) he will be losing his one friend who is in the current room; and (c) it would only really help for a few months anyway before everyone came up to join him and there was no higher room to move himself. Plus for staffing and ratio reasons I doubt they could do it anyway; everything is planned around assuming the kids move up in a block.

- One solution to the "it would only be for a few months" problem would be for him to start kindy (i.e., go out of daycare) at age three instead of four, along with the kids in the currently-older room at daycare. In a way that's a great idea because it would certainly give him a lot of experience with slightly older kids, but it also seems like an extreme step. Also that it would be very very difficult to persuade people of; the kindy is a separate school and thus would require a lot more formal processes to start early, and it's not like we have anything objective to point to for why this would be a good idea. I assume lots of parents come in saying "my kid is a special snowflake." Especially since he's so withdrawn and quiet at daycare, I am not sure the daycare providers would be able to back us up by saying "oh yeah, he is already almost reading and can count to 100 and etc" - they don't know any of that (the other day one expressed surprise when he counted to three!). Plus, he'd be losing his one friend and while I do think it would be good for him to play more with slightly older kids, it's a huge change to make and if it doesn't work it could be really negative.

- There are actually a few slightly older kids at playgroup but he doesn't play with them. I like the point above about how it might be easier for them to make friends in a one-on-one context, but given that they have literally nothing to do with one another during playgroup, how do I work that? (Particularly with the new baby coming so soon). Maybe this is where my own lack of social skill comes up, but do you just say to the parent, "I know our kids don't play together at all, but want to have a playdate?" I can't imagine that working, especially since I don't really chat to those parents either... My own introverted self quails at doing this but maybe I'm just being lame and need to suck it up and try?

- Since he doesn't actually engage with other kids on playgrounds or in random other situations nothing ever happens there organically to build off of for a playdate, and the same issues emerge.

Other ideas? There has to be some way to introduce him more organically to situations with slightly older kids, but I confess I'm coming up blank.

I realise this has moved somewhat far from the original question so thank you. Even if nobody has any ideas about it I feel a lot better in general, and confident that just letting him be him and not worrying too much is mainly the way to go.
posted by forza at 5:36 PM on June 29, 2015

I'm hesitant to encourage you to set-up play dates if you are about to give birth, but, yes, that's how it works. Honestly, a lot of the times I hung with someone is because we got along as adults, kids this age really do sort of run around and maybe interact a bit.

Could you try and strike up a conversation with someone you might be okay hanging out with for an hour? I'd see what sort of activities they do and if there is common ground. Oh, even better would be you inviting someone to a place you go - a park you hang out at or a bounce house, anything that you could invite someone to join you.

All this isn't necessary for your child, but it might be nice, and it sounds like it might be a good try for you. I used to hang around story time at the library, and sometimes we'd go outside afterwards and the kids would run around for a few minutes while we chatted. All of which is to say, a few interactions might increase your confidence to try some interactions with other parents. I made the effort to go out of my comfort zone and I'm glad I did it. It didn't work every time, and sometimes I only met up once with someone, but I don't regret those efforts.
posted by dawg-proud at 6:15 PM on June 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also pretty sure not autistic spectrum: no sensory sensitivities, no stimming or behaviours like that, has advanced language and great eye contact and interaction with us, etc.

The absence of these doesn't rule out autism spectrum, but from your description, if it is ASD, it sounds mild.

Your son sounds very bright, which can be a lonely place.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 9:17 PM on June 29, 2015

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