There is nothing more heart-wrenching than watching your child standing alone at a birthday party while the other children have fun, or worse, realising your child is never invited at all.
Being a part of the group is equated with social success, which, in turn, is equated with survival, and obviously we want our children to survive!
But there is a big difference between going solo through choice and being excluded. Joanne Weale, a primary teacher at King’s College Soto de Viñuelas, takes this approach with children who hover on the fringes of the group: “Every child is unique and if they are genuinely happy and able to socialise, but decide to spend productive time alone – ie not being left out and bored – then why should we force them against their personality? Obviously (as with all children) this behaviour is checked and observed to make sure it is healthy,” she says.
But what about when your child enters adolescence and they are still rarely able to focus on much beyond their own discomfort in company? Should we encourage them to socialise more?
According to Jenny, an 18-year-old who felt estranged from her peers during secondary and who prefers to remain anonymous for the purposes of this article, “The worst thing parents can do is ask their child what plans they have for the weekend. Or say things like, ‘Why don’t you ask so and so to meet up?’ All it does is make them feel there is something wrong with them.”
So what should parents do? “Being a teen is not easy,” says psychologist Andrea Moreno Alfaro from Sinews Multilingual Therapy Institute in Madrid. “It is a moment filled with lots of changes and a lot of self discovery. This is a period when we usually start to learn the basics of mental self-care as we become more independent from our parents.
“Being healthy is finding the balance between being comfortable when we are alone and having a good group of friends the we can count on and have fun with,” adds Andrea. “During this time parents have the responsibility of allowing their children to find their own wings and act as a cushion they can rely and fall on when life gets hard. Parents have to be observers that can guide teens in a direction but allow them to make mistakes.
“Whether we are more or less sociable depends on several different factors such as our personality traits or our experiences with others,” she says. “Health is about finding a balance that suits each person and being able to be ok both alone and surrounded by meaningful people. Humans are social creatures, one of our main goals in life is connecting with others. The difference isn´t so much about being sociable or not, but about how we like to express our need for connection.”
While we desperately want our children to fit in, emerging studies are finding that alone time may actually boost creativity. According to Gregory Feist, Professor of Psychology at California’s San José University, personality traits that are often linked to creativity include openness, confidence and independence with a lack of concern for social norms and also “a preference for being alone”. His research has indicated that both prominent artists and scientists have far less interest than other people in pursuing active social lives.
So if you are concerned your child prefers his own company to the company of others, don’t be. They may actually be gearing up to be the next Einstein or Daniel Barenboim.