Help a Child Overcome Loneliness
We have a first grader who, a few years ago, was wonderful at playing independently. Ever since he started school a year ago, he's struggled more with the ability to be alone on weekends. (We have just one child.) Aside from weekend family activities, our son often insists, even from the moment he gets up in the morning, on having a playmate — either myself, my husband or a friend. He's told me that he feels "sad" when he isn't "with" someone. At school last year, he was able to work independently and, as a toddler and preschooler, he was also very comfortable playing by himself. How can we encourage him to enjoy moments of solitude without feeling lonely?
Life is certainly easier for mom and dad when their child can be alone. But you also want him to be contented and fulfilled when he is with himself. Below is some guidance tailored to the specifics of your son's situation.
Changes in ability
Parents are always perplexed when children lose an ability that they previously had attained, such as the ability to be alone. Think of your child's mind as having interconnected abilities rather than separate skills.
For example, when your child was a preschooler and kindergartner, he was able to be alone and handle the internal emotional challenges of those years along with the classroom expectations. Now he is a first grader and faces new emotional challenges at the same time that the grown-up's expectations and support have changed. You are seeing his temporary loss of an ability in this new context.
Try thinking of it this way: On the weekend, you might spend time enjoyably cooking a meal for your family. However, on a weekday, after working outside the home or inside the home without help, you might have less "energy" for cooking. If you did cook, you might not enjoy it much.
Even though adults can generally use their willpower to override changes in capacity, an adult's ability to perform an activity and feeling associated with it waxes and wanes.
The paradox of school independence
It seems contradictory for children to be able to work independently at school but not at home, but it is fairly common for several reasons. For one thing, a child is never really alone at school. He is with a teacher and other children. There are many opportunities to engage socially. Being in a classroom is different than being in his room or playing by himself in the yard.
Furthermore, he is rising to his highest level in school. Think of him as giving it his all at school and coming home spent. No cooking dinner for him after a hard day at work!
How to help
Because your son has been able to be by himself contentedly in the past, the most likely explanation for his current situation is that he is responding to new hurdles and challenges. First grade is typically a time when teachers give less support. And other children can be tougher or even meaner. The first grade world of boys starts to be complex. There is much to learn and get used to.
On the academic side, there is more pressure to learn and perform, and a sensitive child with high expectations can face crises of confidence. And parents also expect more. It is one of those many times in children's lives when they launch into the unknown and begin relying on resources they may not fully possess but are constantly building.
There is another wrinkle for your son: He is an only child. He does not have siblings to turn to like he may do with his classmates during the school day. Not having built-in playmates, children without siblings may seek out adults or friends more than a child with a sibling would.
A collaborative, respectful, straightforward approach may help your child with his temporary loss of ability to be alone and also strengthen your relationship with him. Remind your son that he was able to play alone in the past, and will be able to do so again in the future. Tell him that many things have changed in his life, and perhaps he is feeling that he needs more help. Let him know that you understand that first grade is hard.
Finally, tell him that the best way to feel good rather than sad when he is by himself is to think about the changes in his life, what is hard for him, and talk these over with his mom and dad. You don't have to solve anything for him. Simply listening in a caring way and helping him understand more about his own feelings will go a long way.
While you are helping him, and gently encouraging him to return to his former independent ways, it is a good idea to recognize that he is not as strong in this area at this moment and provide more of your time and attention when possible.
Your child will most likely regain his "mental muscles." And by helping him understand the challenges that currently sap his resources, you will establish a model that helps him understand how his mind works in future situations and will help him learn to overcome challenges with thought and conversation, a major step in growing up.
The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood is a nonprofit agency that promotes the health and well-being of children and families. The question may be a composite or illustration of parents' questions.
FIND MORE ON BUILDING INDEPENDENCE
Search for the following related articles on Carolinaparent.com:
"How Do I Help My Child Play Alone?" April 1, 2010
"Helping a Child Become Independent," March 1, 2010