As babies and preschoolers, many children prefer to be alone. They lack the social skills and empathy necessary for mutually beneficial friendships, although they may tolerate or even enjoy others for short periods of time. As they reach school-age, however, friends become increasingly important in most children’s lives. Their friendships allow them to try on different roles and learn the complex social dynamics that they will need to navigate the adult world. By late childhood, most kids have a solid network of friends. If your child prefers to be alone, you might worry that something is wrong.
Although our society tends to reward extroverts, who know just what to say in any situation, an estimated 30 percent of children are natural introverts, according to parenting expert Elizabeth Dawson in an article for Parents.com. While extroverts feel recharged after a social encounter, introverts draw strength and rejuvenation from spending time alone. Introverted children generally are not shy or fearful of social situations, nor do they lack basic social skills. Instead, they simply prefer to dwell in the realm of their own thoughts and feelings. They often choose one or two friends with whom they share everything, rather than racking up a long list of friendly acquaintances.
Shyness and Social Anxiety
According to Dr. Murray Stein and Dr. John Walker, in a paper for the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, shyness and social anxiety are heavily linked. Although shyness is normal in the preschool years, it is generally a sign of anxiety in school-aged children. Children with severe shyness or social anxiety often choose to be alone rather than facing the source of their fear. While introverts genuinely prefer their own company much of the time, children with shyness or social anxiety want very much to be part of the group but are afraid of how they will be perceived. Selective mutism, in which the child refuses to speak in front of others, is common among those with shyness or social anxiety.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, a strong preference for being alone is one of the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders including Asperger’s Syndrome. Other symptoms include resistance to touch, avoiding eye contact, inappropriate facial expressions, trouble understanding others' points of view, obsessive interests and odd posture or body movements. The autism spectrum is complex, and autism spectrum disorders present differently in each person. Do not assume that your child is on the spectrum simply because he prefers to be alone.
A preference for being alone might be a symptom of a disorder or it could mean nothing at all. Gather as much information as possible about your child’s behavior at school, during extracurricular activities and in other social situations. Sometimes a child who is a loner in one situation is perfectly comfortable in another. Armed with information, speak to your child’s pediatrician about your concerns. Your child may need to undergo diagnostic testing in order to determine the root cause of his preferences.