Looking someone in the eye can signify attention, respect, intimacy, trust, interest, and care. However, eye contact or direct gaze can be difficult for some children. Occasionally avoiding eye contact for brief moments can be a normal part of child development, particularly if kids are coping with uncomfortable feelings. However, other times, issues with looking someone in the eye can indicate a medical or emotional issue that may need intervention.
Avoiding eye contact is a common sign of conditions like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and social anxiety disorder (SAD), so it makes sense that parents may worry if they notice that their child seems to dislike looking people in the eye. However, averting their eyes occasionally in specific situations is not the same as habitually avoiding or disliking eye contact.
Why Eye Contact Matters
Eye contact plays a fundamental role in human interaction. Looking someone in the eye is a key way people communicate, both verbally and nonverbally. It helps people develop positive rapport and emotional connection, and is an important component of social skills, learning, attention, and relationship-building.
Evolutionarily, eye contact plays a key part in a baby's survival, as they seek out their parent's eyes to get their needs for food, comfort, and shelter met. In fact, studies show that from birth newborns prefer to look at faces that engage with them and look them in the eye.
"Newborn infants can make eye contact with their parents/caregivers in the delivery room and first days of life," says Peter J. Smith, MD, MA, FAAP, associate professor of pediatrics at University of Chicago and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Executive Committee on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. "In general, eye contact is understood to be an important form of connection between babies, infants, and young children with their parents and caregivers."
People use eye contact to build trust, intimacy, love, and communication. Our eyes are often called the "windows" to our souls, meaning that emotions, intentions, and thoughts are often very clear just from looking in someone's eyes.
We also use our eyes as a key part of nonverbal communication and emotional intelligence. A look in someone's eye can signal all kinds of things from discomfort or unease to suspicion or fear to joy or surprise. Sometimes, mere eye contact is enough to know someone's thoughts, such as if they're lying or if they want to talk in private.
When children make eye contact, they are learning about their environment and the people they are interacting with. In fact, research tells us that from infancy onward, children use social cues like eye contact to better understand the world around them. They also learn to interpret and mimic the facial expressions that go along with eye contact. These experiences help them to be able to "read" people, further developing their social-emotional skills.
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Typical Development of Eye Contact
From birth, babies are hardwired to seek out eye contact, explains Dr. Smith. In fact, infant vision is best at about 6 to 8 inches, which is the right distance to see a caregiver's face when being held (or breastfed) in their arms. Research also shows that watching faces and people's eyes is something babies particularly enjoy. Additionally, babies seem to be attuned to learning when prompted using a direct gaze before introducing the information.
"At any age, difficulty making eye contact is a potential cause for concern.This is because making eye contact is a basic form of connection and communication," says Dr. Smith.
Between 2 and 6 months old, most babies will consistently maintain direct eye contact, with the tendency and longevity to hold eye contact increasing over time. Typically developing children continue to seek out eye contact from their loved ones and others as they grow. Sharing eye contact is a key way that kids communicate that they feel safe, cared for, and content. The eye contact they receive from people around them also signals acceptance, comfort, intimacy, interest, and care.
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Why Children Might Avoid Eye Contact
While seeking out direct gaze is normal human behavior, there are situations in which some kids will have trouble with eye contact. These might be medical, such as children who have visual impairments, which can make direct gaze challenging, says Dr. Smith.Or these issues may be due to mental health issues, such as when children are struggling with their emotions. This is especially common when they feel vulnerable, upset, or embarrassed, or if they have a mental health disorder.
Big, Raw Feelings
It is normal for kids to have issues with eye contact in certain situations. Eye contact can be difficult when emotions are raw for anyone, but for children, who are still working on emotional regulation and social skills, it can be even more challenging. For this reason, many children will avoid eye contact if they feel sad, scared, shy, upset, stressed, out of place, or embarrassed. Additionally, they may avert their eyes when they have done something wrong, have a secret, or are confused.
In this way, avoiding eye contact becomes a coping mechanism to not let others "see" or notice their hurt or vulnerability, or to avoid taking responsibility. Typically, this signals that the child has big feelings they may need help coping with. Monitor the frequency of this issue and consider if other symptoms are present that could indicate a mental health concern. However, generally, this is an expected part of life as kids build their social-emotional and communication skills.
Note that there is a difference between looking away because of shyness or distressing feelings and just generally disliking or having trouble making eye contact at all. "There is no age that it is common for typically developing children to have difficulty making eye contact," explains Dr. Smith.
With guidance and experience, children begin to learn to regulate their emotions more effectively in challenging situations. As they develop over the middle childhood and teen years, they become more able to make eye contact when they are feeling vulnerable. However, at times of stress, challenge, or other distressing situations, even older kids may avoid eye contact when they struggle with their feelings or what to do.
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Comfort level with eye contact and social-emotional and communication skills will vary widely. In particular, children who have social-emotional challenges are more likely to dislike eye contact. Introverted children, those with behavioral issues, kids under stress, and those with anxiety and other mental health disorders may also struggle more with direct gaze.
Mental health conditions associated with a dislike of eye contact include anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), conduct disorder, depression, and oppositional defiant disorder. Note, though, that simply avoiding direct gaze when under stress or feeling uncomfortable is not necessarily an indication that your child has a mental health concern unless other symptoms are also present.
However, research shows that those with social anxiety disorder (SAD) have particular trouble with direct gaze. Essentially, eye contact, especially with those they don't know well, makes them uncomfortable and feel under the spotlight, causing stress, emotional upset, and avoidance.
Additionally, some children who experience trauma can find some aspects of social interactions challenging, including making eye contact, says Dr. Smith.
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Autism Spectrum Disorder
"Children who have autism spectrum disorder often have difficulty making eye contact, although not always, and not always from birth when they do have the difficulty," explains Dr. Smith.
Symptoms of ASD typically include difficulty with communication and interpersonal interaction, including inconsistent or avoidance of direct gaze. A wide range of other signs and symptoms may also be present such as restrictive or repetitive behaviors, intense interest in certain topics, not listening to or looking at others, and not responding typically to social cues.
While most infants exhibit a similarly strong preference for eye contact, some babies begin to show a decrease in eye contact by 6 months old. This slight reduction in the behavior of looking people in the eye is a key sign of ASD. Studies show that while neurotypical babies and children continue to increase their pursuit of and interest in direct gaze, some kids who later are diagnosed with ASD may begin to show signs of eye contact avoidance as early as 2 months old.
These changes in how a baby seeks eye contact may not be noticeable to the untrained eye, but if they are picked up upon, children who are likely to develop ASD may be able to get treatment sooner. Early intervention for children with ASD is thought to produce improved outcomes.
How to Help Your Child Make Eye Contact
Often, when kids avoid eye contact, it is due to the situation they are in and the feelings they are feeling. Other times mental health issues may be a play. So, be sure to consult a doctor or a therapist if you suspect that a developmental or mental health condition is at the root of your child's averted gaze.
Getting a correct diagnosis and learning that your child is struggling with some social-emotional issues or trauma will help them get proper treatment and attention for whatever is going on, says Dr. Smith. "The child should be evaluated by a clinician or team that is trained in the formal diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder." Additionally, you may want to have your child screened for eye impairment if they have any other issues with their vision.
Moreover, for any child, you can also encourage them to make more eye contact and increase their comfort level in a number of ways at home. Firstly, you can model this behavior by making eye contact with them. Aim to do this at times when you are feeling vulnerable or having a serious conversation as well as during light, fun times.
You can also gently ask your child to look you in the eye when you speak. Sometimes, kids just need reminders and to practice this skill. Kids often learn new skills best through play and lots of repetition. You can even make a game of it by having staring contests to see who can hold direct gaze the longest.
When you notice your child is averting their gaze, you can also ask them why and how they are feeling. In this way, their avoidance of eye contact can become a signal that something else is going on. They may be in need of your support and guidance. Working on their ability to identify and express emotions and other coping skills can help them feel more comfortable with eye contact in times of stress, too.
A Word From Verywell
Eye contact is an important social-emotional skill that helps us build bonds, learn, feel safe, and communicate. When babies and children avoid direct gaze, it can be a normal response to uncomfortable feelings or situations, but it can also point to other issues. There are ways to help boost your child's comfort with eye contact, but be sure to consult with a pediatrician if you have any concerns that your child specifically dislikes direct gaze.
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