It can be so frustrating when a child persistently avoids making eye contact.
Frankie comes to see me on Tuesday mornings. He is a beautiful three-year-old boy with blond hair and large blue eyes…but unfortunately, those beautiful blue eyes make only fleeting contact with his mom’s and dad’s. Frankie’s mom confided in me that she finds it painful and frustrating that, despite her best efforts, Frankie simply never looks into her eyes.
Frankie was recently diagnosed with PDD (Pervasive Developmental Delay) and although his mom knows that poor eye contact is a common symptom, she feels inadequate and feels she has failed to connect in this way. She knows how important sustained eye contact is for communicating a sense of love and security to a child and she worries that her inability to create that will impede Frankie’s emotional development.
You might know a child who struggles to make and maintain eye contact, and whether or not that child is on the PDD spectrum, the material I shared with Frankie’s mom can prove valuable to you, as well.
Here’s what you should know:
A child who has difficulty making and maintaining eye contact is usually not out to frustrate you. Eye contact avoidance is usually caused by anxiety. In fact, sensing your upset actually causes the child discomfort—which feeds into that anxiety. So, forcing eye contact is not the solution, however tempting—and can actually aggravate the problem.
Well, what can you do?
- Create an environment that allows your child to relax into a regulated state. You can see that your child is regulated when breathing becomes regular, muscles are still, and eyes are focused.
- Make yourself available for eye contact so that your child can try it out when he is ready. He may want this very much but might not know how to tell you. Remember not to position yourself at too close proximity—that could stimulate stress and cause him to become resistant.
- Once the two of you are relaxed and regulated, it’s time to try some activities that encourage eye contact. One of my favorites is playing catch in a small, contained area such as a kiddie pool.
Note: A child who avoids eye contact might have an issue with eye teaming, meaning that his eyes are not so great at working together. This can occur even when each eye works well individually. If your child has typical development but persistently avoids making eye contact, you might want to have an OT evaluate his ability to track objects and perform other activities that require eye coordination.
Photo credit: Ben Earwicker