My son spends a lot of time by himself. He gets totally engrossed in building robots and other solo projects. But I keep wondering if he genuinely likes being alone or if he is secretly lonely. How can I tell the difference?
It’s wonderful that your child seems like he’s comfortable spending time by himself. It sounds like he has a lot of great projects too. Good for you for supporting him as he’s doing something he loves.
The question of whether he’s lonely is a tricky one. There are really two parts to that question. One is the issue of how he feels. Does he feel happy being on his own or is he sad about that?
The second part of the question is whether it would be good, even if he’s happy on his own, for him to spend more time with kids his age.
The first thing to find out is if he’s feeling bad about spending time alone. It might be helpful to talk to his teacher to find out if he’s playing with friends at school or choosing to be alone there as well. You could ask the teacher who his friends are or who she thinks he’d get along well with.
Here are some specific questions that you might try:
“On the weekends, Jacob seems to spend a lot of time on his own. When he’s in school, do you see him on his own a lot or is he connecting with the other kids?”
“I would love to have one of Jacob’s classmates over this weekend. Could you make some suggestions about which kids you think might be good to invite over?
“Could you suggest some activities that would be good when I have them over together?”
“Are there things you think we could do at home with Jacob to help him be more social at school?”
“Is Jacob doing OK with the other students in his class? Do you think he’s making friends easily enough?”
If your son is in any type of organized sport or activity, you might also ask his coach or group leader the same types of questions.
It can also be helpful to check in with your son to see if he’s making social connections. When he gets home, instead of just asking “How was school?” ask him more specific questions. Here are a few examples of questions you might ask:
“Who did you sit with at lunch today? What did you talk about?”
“What did you do at recess today? Who were you with?”
“Did you do any work with friends today? Were you happy about who you were working with?”
“Did anyone do anything really funny or interesting today? What did you do?”
“Did you have any free time in class today? What did you do? Why did you choose that?”
“Were you in class early today? What did you do before school started?”
“Is there anyone in your class that you think you might want to have over?”
These kinds of questions can give you a sense of whether your child is lonely or not, and also if he’s learning the social skills needed to be with other people. Keep in mind that children are born with different personalities. Some kids tend to be more comfortable with friends and some are more comfortable on their own.
But sometimes parents need to encourage children to go outside their comfort zone.
While it’s important to give your child time to be on his own, try balancing it with time spent with friends. If your child hasn’t identified someone he wants to be friends with, talk to his teacher or coach to find someone you can invite over. Then take the time to work with your child on how to be a successful host.
It helps to move gradually. Start with inviting a friend over for a short time and plan a structured activity. Maybe you could have a special project that your son and the other child can work on together. Maybe they could go bowling or to a movie.
Depending on your child’s age, the kids might just start with “parallel play”—doing something next to one another. Even if they’re playing video games for a bit, they’re doing it together, so that’s still a good start.
Your child may need your help when he has friends over. For example, you may need to practice in advance how to offer a snack or ask what his friend would like to do. For some kids, these skills come naturally. Other kids need to be explicitly taught these skills.
You may also need to keep an eye out while the friend is over. You may find that your son forgets that he’s hosting and moves off to do something on his own. Gently remind him that he needs to be with his friend while he’s hosting.
As your son gets more comfortable being with friends, he’s more likely to want to be with them. He may not be lonely now. But once he starts having fun and being successful interacting with other kids, he might realize that he likes it. Your role as a parent is to help him strike the right balance.
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About the author
About the author
Donna Volpitta, EdD is the founder of Pathways to Empower. Her work draws on the latest research in neuroscience, psychology, and education.