Q&A: My Child Often Wants to Leave Social Situations

CME WebsitesBehavior, Social Graces

blockquote_bgMy son is 19 months old and enjoys being around people for a short period of time. After about 45 minutes, he has had enough. Even if I am around this happens. I am a Sunday school teacher and I find it hard to leave him for longer than 45 minutes. He also does this when we have people over our home. He is not like this with his siblings or when we are alone. My house is generally very quiet. He loves spending time alone and with people. Is this normal? What can I do to help him with this issue? I need to attend a meeting twice a week and they are 1.5 hours long.

It is difficult for me to give you a definitive answer without knowing more about your son or being able to observe his social/interactional skills directly. I am wondering how your son begins to react differently after 45 minutes to indicate to you he doesn’t want to be around other people? Do you feel it is the other people he is reacting to specifically or the situation itself or is it just that he has had enough and wants to go home? Does he start to cry, scream, tantrum, act out, etc.? You describe that he reacts to the social situations after 45 minutes whether or not you are present, so it would not seem that separation anxiety would necessarily be the cause, but perhaps just general over stimulation or a desire to go back home or to be left alone period. Since you mention your house is always quiet and he does not do this around his siblings or you at home, it sounds like home is his comfort zone (which it should be) and when he goes out or others come in it causes some social anxiety for him.

Overtime his reactions in outside settings after 45 minutes could have become a learned behavior or could have increased because they were unknowingly rewarded. I am wondering if when he first started to show his desire to be away from the other people if he was always taken home or removed from the situation which was what he wanted, thus unknowingly rewarding him in some way? Since you need to attend your twice weekly meetings, I would certainly suggest meeting with his day care provider and implementing a plan to work him through his anxiety (if it is indeed anxiety). You could perhaps make him a photo book to take with him while you are gone showing the sequence of his day in photos. At his age he cannot understand the time concept, however, reviewing a photo book showing him eating breakfast, then going in the car, then arrival at child care, playing at child care, pictures of you working at your meeting, then pictures of you picking him up and finally pictures of going home could help. Review this with him at home and let him take it with him to review at child care while you are gone. Even though he doesn’t understand time, you could still take a picture of the clock and if your meeting is done at 2:00, show him that when the clock in the room matches his picture it will be time to go home, since matching identical pictures is something he is ready to do at his age.

If it is the overstimulation that you feel is affecting him (too noisy in the room, too many kids), perhaps they can create a quiet corner for him in the room where he can go inside a little tent made with blankets and pillows when he needs to be alone and calm himself and listen to quiet music in headphones or read books away from the other caregivers and children, but he may not leave the room to see you or go home early just because he wants to or gets upset. Some child care centers are starting to make quiet corners, so that children can go there to be alone or to pull themselves together emotionally if need be and this has proven quite successful since there are always times when we all want to be left alone. Young children lack the self-regulation and coping skills to do this on their own, so we need to create ways to help them self-regulate and cope in situations they may find difficult. Try to gradually build up his tolerance time, for example, if he indeed makes it a full 45 minutes before becoming upset, set an alarm clock to go off in 5 minutes from that time and say “when the bell rings we can go home” and then reward him for sticking it out another 5 minutes. If he can do 50 minutes, then increase to 55 so that hopefully he can eventually tolerate the full 1.5 hour period.

It would help if you could practice this with the staff on non-meeting days and be prepared for him to act up more when first beginning, as with trying to change any behavior it usually gets a bit worse before it gets better and it does take time and patience. Do not become upset yourself, and have the staff remain calm, firm and positive. Also, when allowing him to leave the situation, be sure to do it when he has calmed himself and stopped crying or fussing, so that you are rewarding the desired behavior and make a big deal of how he made it through the hour. The staff may also want to do something very special for him once he makes it through the 1.5 hours on his own. If you are getting the feeling that his issues seem to be more sensory based, related to overstimulation from being around too many people, loud noises or different environments outside the home, you could also seek an early intervention evaluation from an occupational therapist to look at his ability to handle sensory input (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) and a developmental evaluation to assess his current social skills. This is a link to the free early intervention services in your area: http://www.aacps.org/infants/itp.asp