Children are constantly learning new things and interacting with their environment. As they develop, children learn how to express themselves based on what they see in the world. Sometimes this is expressed through eye contact.
Typical Eye Contact Development
Children are hardwired to seek eye contact. In fact, research shows that babies seek out eye contact with their caregivers from birth. Eye contact is a key component of baby communication. So, when children display an aversion to eye contact, this is usually a learned behavior.
Here are 11 reasons why kids avoid eye contact, plus tips on how to help them master this social skill.
Kids with low self-esteem might have difficulty making eye contact because they do not feel good enough. They think about how other people might be judging them and don’t want to see others’ reactions.
Symptoms of low self-esteem in children include:
- being easily embarrassed
- getting angry when things go wrong
- not liking themselves much or at all
- feeling bad inside most of the time
- having a low opinion of themselves
If your child is suffering from low self-esteem, here are a few strategies you can try to improve their self-image:
- Practice optimism
- Be a good role model – don’t let them hear you talk badly about yourself
- Practice positive affirmations
- Practice gratitude
- Give your kids roles and responsibilities to help them build confidence in their skills
- Provide encouragement
- Reframe failure as an opportunity
- Teach your child power poses
Kids with ADHD or ADD might not be able to make eye contact. They often have trouble focusing on the other person’s face. This could happen when your child is trying hard to focus but just can’t seem to do it all at once. It also happens if your child has difficulty staying focused for a long time and needs a break.
If you think your child might suffer from an attention disorder, please don’t hesitate to contact your pediatrician. They can provide guidance on the best treatments for your child.
If your toddler just needs a little help focusing, here are a few things you can try:
- Encourage a single task at a time
- Get your toddler plenty of exercise and playtime, especially outdoors
- Plan play time immediately before you need them to focus
- Practice calming strategies
- Take brain breaks to get the wiggles out
Children with social anxiety might be afraid of social interaction and avoid eye contact because they are worried that people will judge them.
Symptoms of Social Anxiety in children:
- avoiding conversation
- looking away when someone is talking to the child or looks at him/her
- blushing often
- being shy around other kids their own age
- feeling nervous a lot
- feeling like they are being watched
Children with social anxiety may lack social experience or they might have had one (or more) difficult social interactions that were difficult for them. If you think your child is suffering from social anxiety, be patient! Here are a few things you can try:
- See a behavioral therapist
- Encourage one-on-one social playdates
- Role-play social situations that intimidate them
- Practice simple conflict resolution strategies
- Practice calming strategies
- Teach your child power poses
Kids might avoid eye contact because they are embarrassed. They may feel ashamed and want to hide their face or look away from the other person’s eyes so that he/she cannot see what is going on in his/her head at that moment.
If your child is perpetually avoiding eye contact in embarrassing situations, you might want to evaluate how you are responding to those situations. Are you angry or frustrated? Do you blame or shame them?
For example, if your child has chronic potty accidents, or if they repeatedly leave their lunch box at school, they might avoid eye contact with you if you make them feel worse about the situation (because they probably already feel bad without your criticism).
If this is occurring with your child, try the following:
- Get down on their level.
- State what happened, without any blame or shame. For example “I can tell you feel sad or embarrassed that you did not make it to the bathroom in time.”
- Brainstorm ways you can solve the problem together.
Auditory Processing Issues or Language Delays
Children with auditory processing issues may not be able to make eye contact. They often have trouble understanding what the other person is saying.
Kids that have a language-based learning disability might also avoid making eye contact because it’s hard for them to understand what someone else is trying to tell them.
If you suspect that your toddler has an auditory processing issue or any kind of language delay, see your pediatrician. There are many treatments and solutions they can suggest to help your toddler.
Kids that are struggling with emotional maturity might avoid making eye contact because they haven’t learned how to control their emotions yet.
Symptoms of Emotional Immaturity in children include:
- getting angry or upset easily
- having a hard time expressing feelings
- acting like the world revolves around them.
If your toddler displays this kind of emotional immaturity, you can work on it over time. Here are some strategies to help them develop their emotional maturity:
- Name feelings as they arise
- Practice calming strategies
- Read books about kindness and empathy
- Practice “Lazy” Parenting
- Make your child wait (don’t drop what you’re doing to meet their needs)
Kids that are from different cultures might avoid making eye contact because their culture teaches them not to do it. For example, some Native American tribes believe you shouldn’t make direct eye contact with a person of the opposite sex before marriage.
If your child has been exposed to another culture, you might be experiencing a simple cultural difference. If your child has been adopted or is being fostered, you may need to do some research to uncover any cultural norms they have been exposed to.
Lack of Communication Skills
Kids that have trouble communicating may avoid making eye contact because they don’t understand that eye contact and body language are an essential part of human communication.
Symptoms of difficulty with communication in children:
- using few words
- speaking too quietly or loudly
- avoiding conversation or having a hard time starting one
- not understanding what people mean when they speak to them about something
There are a number of reasons your child might lack communication skills. Some of the common reasons are:
- They came from a background of neglect or abuse
- They have an older sibling who always makes decisions and speaks for them
- Lack of peer-to-peer socialization (no daycare, playdates, etc.)
- They have had limited exposure to verbal language (through reading, TV, or in general conversations)
They Feel Awkward
Children that are feeling awkward might avoid eye contact because they don’t know what to do with their hands or eyes. When kids feel awkward, it’s common for them to look around the room or at something other than the person they are talking to.
Some kids just feel awkward in conversation for no obvious reason. If you think this might describe your child, a few things you can try to get them to make eye contact are:
- Start a conversation about something they LOVE
- Introduce them to friends who share similar styles, hobbies, interests, etc.
- Role play uncomfortable social situations
They are Lying
Kids might avoid eye contact with you because they are lying. They could be trying to convince you of something and may think that making eye contact would give them away. Lying is a common occurrence in childhood.
Aside from avoiding eye contact, here are a few signs your child might be lying:
- Long pauses, especially in the middle of a sentence
- Higher than normal pitch
- They provide completely irrelevant details
If your child is a chronic liar, here are a few things you can do to change the tide:
- Avoid labeling them a liar (or any label at all)
- Demonstrate honesty
- Make honesty a core family value
- Avoid gray areas where some fibs or white lies are acceptable
- Never ask a question you already know the answer to
- Praise honest
- Point out negative outcomes of dishonesty in books, movies, and in real life
They’re Shy & Want to Avoid Conversation
Some kids are introverted. Social situations are totally exhausting for them (some adults are like this too!). Even the simple act of making eye contact drains their batteries. And when they do make eye contact, they are often expected to engage in a conversation (which is NOT something they want to do). So, they might avoid making eye contact in an effort to avoid a conversation.
If your child is an introvert, here are a few things you can do to help them:
- Never force them to engage with someone if they aren’t feeling up to it
- Give them plenty of quiet time to recharge
- Do not overschedule them
- Encourage them to find a hobby or activity that helps them express themselves (this will recharge those batteries)
- Give gentle nudges to be social
How to Help Kids Who Avoid Eye Contact
Here are four quick and easy ways you can encourage your child to start making eye contact.
- Get down on their level
- Ask them to look at you
- Role-play social situations where they get to pretend to be someone else
- Practice looking at them with kind eyes (and a smile)
- Develop a secret signal like a wink or a facial expression (this will encourage them to look at you often)
- Work on confidence-building activities
The Bottom Line
Being able to make eye contact is important because it helps you communicate and form relationships with people. Kids that avoid eye contact may be struggling in school or have other difficulties that need to be addressed. So understanding the root cause behind your child’s behavior will help you tackle this bad habit!
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