Tips for Overcoming Social Barriers


A mother on the floor playing with her daughter.Does playing with your child feel like an impossible thing to do? Does your child always prefer to fly solo, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t get them to share their attention with you in play or ever? Over time, your play attempts are punished, and you try playing less and less. Don’t give up! There is hope!

If this is your experience of play with your child, it is likely due to one of the following:

  1. Your child does not yet understand the value of reciprocal interactions with others.
  2. Your child has limited interests, and the play you propose is too novel or complex.
  3. You have not yet figured out how to make what your child is playing with more exciting with you than without you.

Do not give up hope. While this list may feel daunting, there are ways you can start to teach these things today. First, you must be ready to jump back in the saddle and try again and again!

The most important thing is that you do not give up! Play is foundational to learning, and your child needs you.

Reframe your view on play. Think of play as a delicate dance between two partners. It relies on continuous feedback to flow smoothly, and since your child is likely not listening to your feedback yet, you need to adjust to theirs. What do I mean by this? When attempting to play with your child, pay attention to their body language, facial expressions, and tone.

Are they shifting eye gaze in your direction to acknowledge you or check out what you are doing? Are they smiling, whining, or crying? Are they moving toward you, staying in place, or moving away from you?

Treat these as communicative play responses in your play approach decision-making. If they are not acknowledging you with eye gaze shifts, if they are crying, whining, or moving away from you, then take this as a message that the play you are attempting is not motivating to them, too novel, or too hard and try something different.

Then, read these signs again. If you are getting interest in the form of eye gaze shifting, a smile, or continued presence, then keep going. Pay attention to the communicative signals each time you add something or try something new. Sometimes, you will move ahead too quickly and need to go back, but that is ok. Sometimes, things will get old, and you must try something different. That is ok too.

The key in the beginning is to increase the length of these positive interactions because, in essence, you are teaching the value of reciprocal interactions! You are teaching that being social is fun. To maximize success and attempts, try things your child enjoys instead of trying new things. 

If your child enjoys colors, start with colorful blocks, crayons, scarves, and balls, and share the fun over everything color-related before trying to expand. You’ll know you can introduce something new or challenge your child a bit more in play when they begin to seek you out for play by:

  • Playing near you
  • Shifting their eye gaze from you to the toys and back
  • Pulling you over to the toys or play area
  • Requesting for play items from you
  • Asking for play actions from you

Celebrate these successes, and never give up! Happy playing!

play spaceJustyna Balzar has over 15 years of experience with learners of varying profiles between the ages of 3 to 18 across multiple settings. She received her Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA) certification in 2014 from the Florida Institute of Technology, her Master’s in Curriculum and Education in Applied Behavior Analysis from Arizona State University, and her BCBA certification in 2016.


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