Why does our ~3 year old have such a difficult time in group situations?
July 26, 2019 8:14 AM   Subscribe

Our highly verbal toddler seems like she's progressing faster than other kids, in terms of intellectual milestones. And for all intents and purposes she seems like an average toddler. But when it comes to being in group situations, she has a really hard time. What's going on, and what can we do to help her participate?

Our daughter will be three in September. For the last couple of years, she has been making huge strides in her learning, and is highly verbal for her age. Whenever she's around other children her age, the difference is night and day — she speaks in full sentences and uses multi-syllable words no problem, when others are speaking in half-formed words. She's a funny kid, with a great sense of humor and a deep interest in drawing and singing. She loves storytime. She is super confident — though sometimes it scares us, for example when she's climbing a twisting playground ladder that is 3x her size without any fear.

Other parents have asked us if we think she might be 'gifted', which, I'm not sure. I imagine it's hard to know for sure at this age, given how rapidly kids change as they grow.

But in certain situations, she has a really hard time. A couple of examples:

- Since she was little, we've tried to bring her to storytime at the library. She has always had a really hard time sitting still and listening with the group. Instead, she sort of explores the space, dances around, and talks to people who are clearly trying to listen and participate. Often, she's the only kid doing this sort of thing.
- This morning we're near deciding to give up on swim lessons at the YMCA, as she quickly goes from being in the water to hysterics, while other kids are happily participating in the class with their parents. And we're not sure if she's scared, per se, as she'll occasionally try to just jump in the water without a life vest on. Clearly pretty scary. When we bring her to an open swim time she seems totally fine, though not entirely easy to control. She often wants to swim away from us (with a floatation vest on) and run up onto the pool deck to explore the boxes of tiny pool toys.
- When she's with other kids her age, it's like she mostly just wants to play alone. She has a rough time sharing her things, and has pushed over kids older then her when they take things from her. She's verbal enough to talk about these moments and apologize, but her rage is pretty wild to witness when she feels slighted, even by small children.

All of this aside, she's a really amiable kid. Eats well, sleeps great. Really active, and really confident. And super outgoing—she's the kid often chatting up other tables at a restaurant, from her highchair. Other parents are always complimenting her on how social she is. She does occasionally try to get the attention of older kids at the playground, though understandably they aren't always interested in playing with her. I feel bad because that's a tough spot to be in, but she never seems too bothered by it.

A few details that may or may not be important:
- For the last year she has been home with my wife, after almost two years in daycare.
- She was born a month early.
- She's really tall and agile for her age. No idea where she got her height.
- By and large she's had a very 'average' childhood. No big events, illnesses, or anything to speak of. My wife and I have a strong relationship and marriage.
- She is an only child, at the moment.
- My wife was very verbal as a child and we were both pretty early readers, so the genes make sense, though I don't think either of us were quite this outgoing or energetic as kids.
- She won't be able to start kindergarten until she's 6, due to her birthdate and our town's rules.
- Her memory is shockingly good. She remembers everything, to the point that we have to be really careful what we say around her.

So, is this par for the course for some toddlers? Does it all just even out eventually? Will she ever be able to sit down and listen to a story, say at school? What can we do to help her figure out how to be in those situations? Do we even need to worry about it? Are there books that might be helpful to read, or other resources?

Parenthood is a rollercoaster. Frankly, we feel very fortunate for the hand we've been dealt, as some families have to deal with much more difficult situations, but nonetheless I'm wondering if there's anything we can do.

posted by summerteeth to Human Relations (28 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: To clarify something above: I mentioned 'she loves storytime' but then went on to say that she has a hard time at storytime. What I meant was that she loves storytime at home (like, before bed) and has a hard time at storytime, say, at the local library.
posted by summerteeth at 8:16 AM on July 26, 2019

All of this sounds pretty normal. Neither of my kids were interested in playing with other kids until they were four or so. I felt anxious about it because it seemed like other kids are more interactive, but I think they are kids who know each other or are extroverted or are in daycare and used to interacting with other kids more than mine are. (My kids were in daycare for a while when they were very young, but have been home with a nanny or parent for almost three years.)

My daughter (almost 7, also born early) is particularly unlikely to do what everyone else is doing if she doesn't feel like it. She's not willingly disruptive, she's just not going to talk at sharing time if she doesn't have anything to say. These are not elements of her personality that I am willing to address, as I think a young girl who stands up to authority and doesn't do something when she's uncomfortable with it is an awesome quality to have.

I think it's part for the course and nothing to worry about.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 8:23 AM on July 26, 2019 [10 favorites]

Your daughter sounds awesome!
I was in a close knit group of friends with kids the same age and similar parenting styles. It was quite fascinating how the kids developed so differently.... exactly as you describe. Some kids were physically coordinated while others had amazing vocabulary. Sone gifted socially others had trouble making friends. Some loved a group others would love hours alone in their room with a project of their own devising.
And the mix of skills attained by each, and the pace of attainment, was unpredictable.
They are now all in university and doing fine.
posted by chapps at 8:29 AM on July 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

(By which i mean they did all develop the skills eventualky at their own pace... and they are still different and enjoy different things).

So i'd say dont worry (good luck, i mever achieved this!!) but do support her by doing things she enjoys and be there to help when she finds a sitiation challenging.
posted by chapps at 8:32 AM on July 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm an Early Childhood Education teacher. I work with 3 year olds. Everything you're saying seems completely within the range of normal to me. Attention, emotions, everything is pretty labile at 3. My advice is to keep doing what you're doing. Pay attention to her cues. The same activity in a different environment can elicit very different behaviors. You can browse homeschool and ECE websites to find activities to enrich her intellectual life. 3 isn't too early to start to identify colors or shapes or other pre-academic skills. It sounds like you're doing a great job!
posted by kathrynm at 8:52 AM on July 26, 2019 [14 favorites]

I will say this as lovingly as possible... uh, your daughter isn’t even three? She is behaving beyond normally. The things you seem to be expecting from a two-year-old, like sitting still at library story time or sharing nicely, are years away from consistently happening for normal kids.

Your pediatrician is always a good start for questions about how your child is developing, since they have generally seen everything.
posted by whitewall at 8:53 AM on July 26, 2019 [12 favorites]

I agree wholeheartedly with the above, and will add the following:

You’re doing a lot of comparisons with other kids at these kinds of group things, but remember, you’re not seeing the kids whose parents know that their kid just can’t tolerate these situations yet. You’re comparing your kid to the subset of kids who are there, not your child’s whole age cohort.

(At that age my sister never bothered to take one of my nephews to anything like this, because it was a one way ticket to screamtown. Yet he, too, is developmentally normal.)
posted by ocherdraco at 8:59 AM on July 26, 2019 [29 favorites]

Regarding 1 and 2: You're not seeing other kids doing this because their parents already gave up bringing them. Totally normal.

Regarding 3: Also totally normal.
posted by metasarah at 9:00 AM on July 26, 2019 [6 favorites]

(Also: you are also totally within the range of normal for asking this question, even though you’re getting a pretty unanimous result! It’s really hard to suss out what’s specific to one kid and what isn’t when you’ve only got the one example!)
posted by ocherdraco at 9:01 AM on July 26, 2019 [10 favorites]

She's fine. Group toddler activities are a total freakin' joke, designed to make us all feel like failures. (Okay, I'm a little bitter.) But yeah, some kids hate them and are a bit more independent.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:04 AM on July 26, 2019 [6 favorites]

My older daughter was a bit similar - never really got the point of interacting with preschool kids since her main way of connecting was verbal and that was easier to do with adults. She only started having friends at 4.5-5. She‘s in 3rd grade now and found a best friend who is similarly hyperverbal. She‘s good at remembering words and has a huge vocabulary for her age. Other than that quirk, she‘s entirely on average, academically.

Not being able to sit still at not-even-3, and not being able to deal with intense experiences like swim lessons is...shockingly normal. My older kid never really got into these kinds of things. Now in a school situation she‘s totally ok with sitting still, following instructions, you have it. They change a lot in those couple of years. With my younger kid, I just don‘t even try storytime or baby massage or what have you. All these activities can be fun, but they’re not necessary, and often oversold, you know? Don‘t worry, your kid sounds great and judging from how you describe your life, seems to be getting plenty of stimulation and fun outside of scheduled group things.
posted by The Toad at 9:07 AM on July 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Totally normal. Kids develop all skills, including social skills, at different ages. It's challenging for parents when the skills that can be observed (and judged) in public are the ones developing less quickly. But some of those kids sitting quietly at storytime aren't able to speak three-word sentences yet. Some of them won't be potty trained until 4. Some of them can climb jungle gyms and some can't climb stairs. Some of them aren't at storytime at all because they can't even get in a car seat without screaming their heads off, much less enter a library. You're fine. You care about raising a kind and prosocial kid and that is great. Your kid is also fine.
posted by xylothek at 9:08 AM on July 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also I mean...this sounds like my kid completely, except that he was not that verbal that early (remembered EVERYTHING though which we didn't realize, so, ha ha...sigh.)

Some people are just smart and really independent. These people are great.

That said, parenting them can be...it can be a total stressball shitshow sometimes. I do not doubt that my lovely perfect child took YEARS off of my life expectancy because he would not cooperate with so many things and does not find anything at all dangerous or scary. It was really, really stressful.

At the same time...he mostly aged out of it and now, geez, I just admire the hell out of his amazing independence and bravery and he is one of the most entertaining kids I have ever met.

PLUS! If you're worried about it! He has a lot of friends. And he's super sweet with littler kids. He just didn't like being stuck with them all the time. Bigger kids are more fun to play with.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:11 AM on July 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also...I don't know if you're worried about her being on the spectrum (hyperverbal behavior can be a sign)? I'm not a professional, although I do know a decent amount about it, and nothing you've said really screams that to me. I would not worry about it based on what you've said.

However, if it does end up being the case that she is on the autism spectrum, as someone who knows and loves a lot of people on the spectrum, I would say that it is also not something I would worry about, it that makes sense. I can tell you're doing a great job with her already; that you're sensitive and responsive to her needs. You would adjust a little bit, like you would if your kid was really tall or needed glasses or something like that. But she has two loving parents, she's bright and happy, and she sounds like a delightful kid. None of that would change, you'd just put a few extra tools in your toolkit for helping her navigate the world.

Also, you might like "Far From the Tree," a documentary about parents with kids who are different from them. It's an intense movie, but I found it really enjoyable and moving.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:22 AM on July 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

This is all normal stuff. Give her time. Correct the bad behavior (pushing, etc), but otherwise give her room to explore.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:25 AM on July 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Gently: Right off the bat, nothing you wrote sounds particularly abnormal or worrisome. That said, you wrote an awful lot about how gifted, verbal, advanced, lightyears beyond other kids, etc. your daughter is (slightly exaggerated but...) Even if this is true, it may not be a great thing for you to focus on, and definitely not to unconsciously convey to her. Instead, it may help to focus at this age on social and emotional development. If those skills aren't gained at ages 2-4, it's much harder later on. At least for me, my daughter developing into a well-adjusted, compassionate and socially-skilled person is a higher priority than her being top of her class. Are there plans to bring your daughter back to preschool soon? If so, I may forgo looking for academically rigorous ECE programs in favor of ones that emphasize social and emotional development through play-based curriculum. Just my $0.02.
posted by namesarehard at 9:52 AM on July 26, 2019 [21 favorites]

This sounds a lot like my daughter in terms of the hyperverbalness and the memory. She's phenomenal in group situations because she goes to daycare. Your child doesn't have much exposure to group situations anymore since she isn't in daycare. There's tons of benefits to being home with mom, too, but one big pro of daycare is that it teaches you how to share, take turns, sit down for circle time, etc.

Also, my wonderful child is a trash sleeper. Every kid this age has something they are weird at.
posted by notjustthefish at 10:05 AM on July 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

Chiming in to say pretty much totally normal.

As the parent of one not-that-verbal child (at that age, he pontificates on the BNA Act now) and one hyper-verbal child, I would say...

Sitting still: No big deal at this age. If she's having trouble closer to kindergarten you can enroll her in an activity where they explicitly teach that, like a traditional martial art. She may be a kinetic learner, nothing wrong with that.

Social/hyper verbal: One pet theory of mine...adults love hyper-verbal children because we adults tend to be uncomfortable just 'being' with kids, plus the babbly wisdom of the child is a delight in line at the grocery store where the child seriously contemplating the texture of his coat, not so much.

So the hyper-verbal children are met with the delight of adults everywhere they go. This tends to create a little closed feedback loop where they interact with adults -> get delight -> interact with adults some more. Because other little kids don't delight in each others' achievements at this age, there's no equivalent feedback for the hyper verbal ones in their peer group (whereas if you are obsessed with the angle of trucks rolling, having a friend to make a ramp is a bonus) and so they wander off to engage adults. It's not good or bad, it just is, but I think if you are worried, getting her into a play group or preschool where she has the opportunity to expand her idea of interaction might help. But again you have loads of time before kindergarten.

Swim lessons: The parents of other screamers gave up a long time ago.

What I do think you need to address is your anxiety. I would look for a parents' group for you or your wife so that you can hang out with parents of similarly-aged kids, and get to observe the group as well as develop a bit of a parenting tribe.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:22 AM on July 26, 2019 [11 favorites]

Yes everyone else’s 3 year olds are like this. Well not this specifically but yes a mix of “generally pretty sweet and amiable” and a few “whoa wtf” behaviors. My older kid was pretty verbally advanced at 3, both spoken language and taught himself to read at 4. He loathes groups and organized exercise things where he’s on a team, has always marched to the beat of his own little drum. Younger kid is the occasionally seriously wrathful one and he’s only just turned 2 but GODDAM.

It’s normal to wonder if you’re the only one going through something like this. Parenting is hard and lonely and you so often only see the well behaved outside lives of others, I hope the answers here help you. If you and/or your wife are interested, come join us in the Metafilter Facebook group for parents. We do a lot of gut checks with each other about what’s “normal” and having many instances of micro-support can I think be very reassuring in aggregate. Memail me, any of you moms and dads, to join.
posted by sestaaak at 10:34 AM on July 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Everyone else has commented to say these things are very normal. I won't discount this and they are likely correct! Just wanted to add my own experience that my child had the exact same difficulties with library story time and swim lessons at the Y. It turned out he has sensory issues (as part of an ASD diagnosis). He had trouble with story time and swim time because there were so many sounds and visual stimulations going on, he could not filter it all out to focus on the person he was supposed to be listening to. I'm not saying this to diagnose your daughter in any way, but it is possible she has some sensory difficulties. It helps to watch out for these and help when you can (i.e., my son was very sensitive to loud classrooms in preschool and kindergarten, so his OT made sure he had headphones available for his use as needed). Prior to becoming a parent I had no idea sensory issues was at all a thing so that's why I mention it, just to give you information that could be helpful at some point.
posted by JenMarie at 10:55 AM on July 26, 2019 [7 favorites]

Both daycares our kid has attended have/had a 'circle time' at some point in the day. This was explained to me as serving to develop their capacity to sit still and be part of the group. It's still a real effort for the teachers (but then what isn't? daycare teachers should make a million dollars a year if you ask me), and some kids are more inclined to do it than others. If your daughter has been at home, she's probably getting great simulation and learning in some areas but doing less work to practice this skill. (Which in my opinion is probably fine, but I have no education in this.)
posted by slidell at 11:01 AM on July 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

If the other kids are boring her, that's something I hope you'll treat seriously when it's time. I wish my parents had, maybe, taught me to pay attention to others so that I could find the best way to be helpful to them (not explaining stuff, not condescending, but something more nuanced - a worthy challenge). Not that I was like your daughter, or that I could have been particularly helpful, but I have had my own challenges.
posted by amtho at 11:49 AM on July 26, 2019

I had unusually tall, unusually verbal toddlers, and something that I had to remember not to do was to expect emotional behavior that matched their height and verbal capacity. When my older daughter was three, she was bigger than a lot of four-year-olds, and talking more clearly than a lot of four-year-olds, and so it was hard not to expect her to be as emotionally and socially adept as a four-year-old. (She's turning twenty this week, and while she was a remarkably verbal toddler, she's just an ordinarily bright kid as a schoolage kid/adult.)

Look at her compared to another kid her age, rather than her size and conversational skills, and see if she still seems to you to be behaving oddly -- I think there's a good chance she isn't, and you're just sort of thinking of her as if she should be equally advanced across all domains.
posted by LizardBreath at 12:07 PM on July 26, 2019 [8 favorites]

I really wanted to stress that I agreed wholeheartedly with what warriorqueen and namesarehard wrote above. Please re-read their advice. Here's my own.

She's not even three. Her behavior is totally within the range of normal. I think, because she is so verbal, you are having a disconnect with her totally normal, almost-three-year-old behavior. You state that she's very verbal and gifted and blah blah in relation to the other children you see in one sentence, and in the next sentence you seem bewildered by her inability to sit still for storytime in a public setting. Again, all the situations you described and her reactions are totally normal. Please treat her emotions and social ability as that of a small, two-almost-three year old, instead of a very verbose older child.

also, I wanted to point out that the three year old age was a Very Horrible Age for both my children. We never went through a "terrible twos" age, but when they hit three? Oh boy. I believe they called it the "Three-nager" age, because the amount of hormones going through their little bodies is equivalent is what happens when a child goes through puberty. All those changes, and it equates to lots and lots of head butting, and frustration (both from parent and child).

Here's a good article about parenting the preschooler. Good luck!
posted by alathia at 3:19 PM on July 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

I have a 3yr old and 80% of my social circle has kids in the 2.5 to 3.5 range. Everything you describe sounds very normal to me - toddlers this age have a really wide range of abilities and all of them are advanced in some areas and on the slow side in other areas (and I’m talking about everything from academic to social to physical skills, plus things like ability to sit still, follow directions, etc). A lot of it will even out with time, though of course adults also have things that come easily to them and things that don’t.
posted by insectosaurus at 5:18 PM on July 26, 2019

We struggle with this with our kids all the time. With our youngest, our mantra with has become “he’s only four, he’s only four.” He has the emotional development of a typical four year old, despite the fact that he talks like an adult and taught himself to read at a first grade level. But heaven help you if you’re 10 minutes late for a meal...meltdown city. It can be really jarring.

You might do some reading on what’s called asynchronous development, which is super common in gifted kids but presents a lot of difficulties in parenting. The reason is - your daughter talks to you like she’s much older, perhaps because she’s intellectually advanced. Then you get to be expecting that she’s also emotionally advanced. When her self-regulatory capabilities aren’t up to the level of her intellectual capabilities, the mismatch seems wrong and you worry. But it might help to remind yourself that she’s a toddler, and there’s a reason that toddlers have the reputation they do! Not only does every child develop at a different rate than other children, they also develop at different rates from themselves!

Although you and others in the thread seem a bit dismissive of a gifted label, if you have other parents suggesting that, you should take it seriously. It’s a little too early to know for sure, but I’d encourage you to keep it in mind in the future, and maybe do some reading now about gifted traits, particularly overexcitabilities.
posted by Cecilia Rose at 9:03 AM on July 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

I’m going to go well against the grain a little and absolutely suggest you see an adolescent behavioral specialist.

Before you read further - I am sharing this for the benefit of those who may come later - and none of this is directed at any particular child (including yours). None of the below is intended to scare you - but to offer a counterpoint to “this is totally normal”.

At age 3 my now 6 year old was super verbal, awesome language skills (teachers were blown away with his vocabulary), very active, loved art, was a good eater and sleeper, loved story time, but was restless and inattentive, impulsive - would run towards waves in the ocean without any fear, not great in groups (preferred adults) and would not interact with the group as part of it rather would simply be in it doing there own thing, and started exhibiting aggression to other children. We had him in occupational therapy (OT) because his fine motor skills were a little bit rough and luckily our OT essentially said “hey I can’t tell you what it is, but maybe get him looked at by a behavioral specialist - something is a little off here”. We owe her everything for that advice - it was by far the single most helpful advice we have ever had as parents.

He was subsequently diagnosed super early as being on the spectrum (high functioning). Knowing this *way* early is a massive advantage if something is going on (if nothing else it gives you time to start the journey of understanding behavioral health and mental health issues - and in the US can also mean gearing up for how you interact with your community - be that school districts and start getting ready for IEP battles to come, looking at your insurance and what it covers and making changes there if needs be, getting involved with parenting groups for other similar children etc).

Three and half years later our child is gifted / is reading and communicating several years above age level / loves inventing things / is artistic and funny and has friends. 95% of the time you would see him and think he was the same as any other six year old. But he’s also been in and out of adolescent mental crisis units for extended stays, and we have had to redesign our life and home to help him and make family life work - we have had steak knifes thrown at us and can no longer have any metal cutlery or cooking utensils in the house. We have fought pitched warfare IEP battles, and had to engage advocates / lawyers/ and placement consultants to help us find the help he needs. We had over 2500 hours of professional support between ABA, PCIT, and various therapists. None of this would have seemed even on the horizon three years ago.

My experience is not the norm - but there is no normal with children. No one on this thread knows your child. If *you* think something is off - trust your gut and seek professional advice.

Good luck friend.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 11:42 AM on July 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

Go look up the DSM-V for autism and see if it makes sense. No one here knows your child. But take a look and see if it might fit. Where I live, there are way more programs and supports for children with autism than with other challenges. Then I would recommend seeing a psychologist who specializes in early childhood autism, especially in hard-to-spot girls with engaged parents who are doing a lot to socialize them.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 5:08 PM on July 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

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