What is Shared Enjoyment in Childhood?
Shared enjoyment in childhood is playing with toys, talking, or enjoying an activity because of the joy of the interaction with another person. Kids who are sharing enjoyment with each other look at each other, and show their engagement with eye contact, laughter, smiles, and facial expressions.
Healthy shared enjoyment might include your child bringing and showing you things, looking at you while anticipating a reaction, and attempting to connect with you and others.
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Symptoms of Concern with Shared Enjoyment in Children
- Awkward silence: your child stares blankly at you when you share something about yourself or ask a question of your child. For example, you mention that you broke your leg, and your child just looks at you.
- In their own world: your child is happy, smiling, and giggling all alone, preferring to play one’s own thing rather than joining another child in their activity.
- Unable to engage others: your child might talk about some preferred activity but without any attempt to understand the interests of others
- Tendency to hide: your child who just entered school for the first time keeps hiding, under the desk, behind a chair, in the coat closet, and disappears into the hallway. This is a sign they may be having trouble enjoying time with others
- Preference for playing alone: your child may be enjoying a book, board game, TV show, joke, or ice cream sundae but they don’t care if others are enjoying this with them. They might not mind it if others join in but they are not particularly interested in what peers are doing
- Parallel play: your child plays beside other children but not with other children in an engaging manner. Your child struggles to go back and forth in the storytelling of imaginary play. Parallel play is appropriate for toddlers but most preschoolers will go beyond that phase and engage in reciprocal play
- Looks away when you say ‘look at that!’: your child tends to get lost in their play and doesn’t show interest when you try to direct their attention to an object of your interest
- Obsessed with specific topics: your child is highly interested in one or two topics, and tries to engage all of their interactions around these topics such as trains, mine craft, police, or natural disasters
What Concerns with Shared Enjoyment Look Like Throughout Childhood
If shared enjoyment is a concern, you will notice your younger child playing happily with toys and turning away from other children. Your child is not very interested in what you or other people are doing. You may feel like you are being used more as a comfort object, such as a child would use a blanket. Your child might take your hand to point to things they want. You don’t see your young child spontaneously playing a game of hide and seek with you or looking at you and spontaneously smiling. From a parenting perspective, you may feel your very young child is looking for more independence than social connection.
Your preschool-age child enjoys playing with toys. You will notice your child enjoys playing alone, and you do not see a lot of reciprocal play. When your child does play with other children, it is often one-sided.
A teen may drop off in conversations with others. Rather than showing interest, your teenager may ignore what the other person says or reply with “hmm” or a nod. A teen who has this difficulty may only converse about an area of interest and may be less interested in the ideas or preferences of a friend or classmate. You may find yourself talking fairly often about carburetors when you are not particularly interested in auto mechanics. You may see your teenager experiencing sadness or low self-esteem because they may want friends but be unsure how to share in conversation with another to have close friendships.
Cause of Poor Shared Enjoyment in Childhood
- Social skills deficits or delays: when children have a delay in social skills, it may be hard for them to share enjoyment with other kids
- Attention problems: when children struggle to pay attention in general, they may find it difficult to focus on the interests of others or to show their enjoyment in playing with them or socializing
- Developmental delays: when children have developmental delays, they may not hit social milestones at the same pace as other children. Although we want to see some shared enjoyment as early as the toddler years, some children do not start playing with other children until kindergarten or beyond
- Neurological differences: when children have autism spectrum disorder there are differences in the white matter connections in the brain. Issues with shared enjoyment can be an early sign of autism. In this case, children may struggle to engage socially or share enjoyment with others
- Cognitive development: when children have delays or deficits in their cognitive abilities, they may be slower to make social skills progress. Thus, you may see skills like social interaction develop more slowly
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What to Do About Poor Shared Enjoyment in Childhood
DO join your child in play with warmth and physical touch. Remember that a child who is a little less prone to share enjoyment with others will need social models and some time to warm up when around others. To engage with your child, do not be too directive in your communication. Rather, follow your child’s lead. If your child does not want a particular touch, always honor that and make other adults honor that too. For many children with autism, it is easier for them to share enjoyment with physical play first such as hugs and tickles. Have fun yourself and find time to laugh and engage in physical activities.
DO make eye contact and initiate shared enjoyment. Start to bring your child into your world by choosing something that your child likes to do. Begin with the activity your child loves first, be it gardening, baking, building Legos, or reading books. Model shared enjoyment. You do this by laughing, hugging, and commenting on how much you are enjoying the activity.
DON’T make it a Q&A: It is important to not have your whole conversation be a question and answer session. It is easy to fall into this trap. You ask your child a question. They give you a short answer or sit silently. You ask another question. There is an easy way to solve this. Start making comments instead. For example, if you and your child are cooking together, you can say, “Wow, that pan is really hot!” Then simply wait. See if your child will comment on it too. If your child comments, then you add another comment like, “I will turn that down a little in a minute. Why don’t you go ahead and get the other ingredients out?” If your child gets them out, that’s another opportunity to keep the conversation going by saying, “Thank you, it is so fun cooking with you.”
DO gradually expand the interaction: Bring your child slowly outside of their internal world. We want your child to realize that it can be fun to do things outside their interest that others love. Expand to something larger or busier like a Lego museum, the zoo, or a new children’s book outside of your child’s topic of interest. Talk about what you and others find interesting about this topic. Help your child enjoy spending time doing new things with others.
DO expand from family to friends: Now that your child is starting to show shared enjoyment with your family, it is time to expand out to peers. Transfer some of this learning to peer interactions with other children who share those same interests and passions that your child has. Plan to be actively involved in playdates and initiating the connection, and teach your child how to play cooperatively with other children. You can do this by writing out a social story before their friend visits. You can draw stick figures and say, “Brian is coming over to play. He also likes Minecraft. I can share with Brian what I like about Minecraft.” I want to stop and ask Brian what his favorite part of the game is. I can play on the computer and show Brian what I like. After ten minutes, I need to stop and give Brian a chance to play and show me what he likes while I listen and watch him play.” In this way, you are giving your child a structure to follow in order to make the interaction more pleasant for everyone.
DO have a mix of interactions at home. Although shared enjoyment is extremely important for your child’s social development, remember that this togetherness can be exhausting at first. Give your child downtime, time to relax, and to engage in their interests. This time alone can be balanced and rotated with family time. Even one night per week is a great start at getting more family time on the books. Take time to play games, watch a movie or show together, share snacks, take turns and do activities that involve cooperation and shared enjoyment.
When to Seek Help for Shared Enjoyment Issues
If you have any concerns about your child being able to connect with other children, you may need support. Shared enjoyment is a hard skill to learn.
With young children, brain plasticity is on your side. The sooner you get help for your child, the better the outcomes. First, seek out an evaluation by a trained psychologist.
Next, see If you can find an ABA therapist who uses Pivotal Response techniques, developed by researchers out of UC Santa Barbara, the Koegels. Using an approach like this, you can see great social progress in the use of socially directed language, social responsiveness, and social communication. Other similar models include Denver Early Start, and teachings from the MIND institute.
A good ABA therapist, also known as BCBA (Board-Certified Behavior Analyst) can be life-changing for a family. These clinicians have guided children to make massive progress in their social skills, behavior, and communication.
Professional Resources on Shared Enjoyment
- Testing psychologist: a psychologist with expertise in childhood assessment can conduct an evaluation to look at social skills including shared enjoyment, cognition, language, and other areas like motor skills or executive function or attention. An evaluation should result in a profile of strengths and weaknesses, any diagnoses that are relevant as well as prioritized recommendations for treatment
- BCBA and ABA therapy team: a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) leads an ABA team that includes BCaBAs, and line therapists called RBT’s. This therapy includes direct pivotal response treatment with your child as well as parent consultation and monthly team meetings for data review. This treatment has the most research to support its effectiveness with social symptoms like shared enjoyment in young children ages 2-7
- Social group therapy: a group setting with a trained facilitator can be a great place for your child to work on social skills. With older children, a mix of cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy and social group therapy is generally utilized. The facilitator may be a psychologist, speech pathologist, or licensed therapist
- Speech pathologist: a speech therapist can work on pragmatic (social) language and conversation skills with a child individually or in a group setting
- School psychologist: a school psychologist can support a child at school with social groups, individual support, and parent consultation. They can also help determine the best peer buddies or peer models, and consult with a teacher to provide support in the classroom
Similar Conditions to Shared Enjoyment Difficulties in Childhood
- Social presence: the skill of being comfortable being around other children rather than preferring to play alone
- Cooperative play: the skill of playing cooperatively with other children, taking turns, and allowing other children to choose games and activities. These skills are foundational building blocks of making friends
- Sharing and showing: the skill of showing toys and objects of interest. As early as the toddler and preschool years, we expect kids to start sharing toys, tricycles, and playground equipment
- Reciprocal conversation: the skill of having conversations that include a lot of listening, sharing, asking questions, and allowing the other person to engage equally in the conversation
- Varied interests: the skill of expanding beyond one’s own specific interest area. When a child has interests that are related to a few very specific topics, they may have trouble talking about other things. In boys, these issues tend to stand out more, while in girls their restricted interests tend to be more mainstream like horses or dolls. With boys, you may see more unusual interests like air conditioners, mailboxes, or carwashes. Restricted interests may include common interests like trains, Minecraft, or Pokemon
- Perspective-taking: the skill of understanding someone else’s perspective is different from your own. Perspective-taking includes understanding the thoughts and ideas of others and showing interest in their perspectives
- Emotional insight: the skill of understanding and labeling your own emotional experience
- Joint attention: the skill of sharing attention by pointing to something interesting or following the gaze of another person who is pointing to something. Shared attention promotes learning and social connection with peers
- Nonverbal communication: the skill of using gestures, facial expressions, and body language to communicate. Nonverbal communication also includes reading this communication from others
Book Resources on Shared Enjoyment in Childhood
 Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
 Koegel Autism Center, University of California at Santa Barbara. education.ucsb.edu/autism
 UCSB PEERS Clinic. https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peers
Other resources for shared enjoyment in childhood
Association for Science in Autism Treatment, to learn more about effective and research based interventions for Autism www.Asatonline.org
Baker, Jed. (2006) Social skills picture book for high school and beyond.
Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers.
Ozonoff, Sally, Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.
Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.
Trawick-Smith, Jeffrey (2013). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective.
Barton, Erin. Educating Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.