Q&A: social anxiety in a 16-month-old

Rebecca writes:

"My 16 month old son is having pretty intense social anxiety.  He is also having separation anxiety so I'm not sure if they just go hand-in-hand? He is having a really hard time in any sort of playdate situation.  He is visibly stressed, upset, clingy, etc.  The slightest thing sets him off and he comes running to me sobbing for comfort.  He is fine at home with me and hubby, and actually does OK in other toddler arenas, for example, the play gym, parks, etc.  I really think it's mostly the implied expectation of social interaction.  Even if we go to the park and meet another Mom/Kid there, he is much more stressed than when we just go by ourselves.  I also notice that he will separate himself from the main kid-heavy areas and run off into more open spaces to be by himself.  But again, he will do fine at our toddler gym or mall play areas which can be quite overrun with kids!  So I'm a bit confused. The worst scenarios are at someone's home - confined to their playroom in close proximity with one or more kids.  Total meltdown!!  And I am always right with him so it's not a trigger of my leaving him alone. That sep anxiety is a whole different ball of wax...or is it?

Help! - will this go away or should I be more concerned?  Is this a stage or his personality?  We have been doing playgroups, etc, since he was born so socializing isn't a new idea for him.  And he always did fine until about two months ago.  I've heard the gamut of advice from 'Have him evaluated...' to 'It'll pass...just a stage.'  My inner Mommy voice isn't giving me a strong feeling either way! 

Thx!  I really like your site and find it refreshing to hear from Moms who are being truthful in their struggles!!"

If it were me I'd get him evaluated, for several reasons. The first is just magical thinking, which is that I'd figure that by the time I got through all the hoop-jumping to get the eval, he'd probably have moved on to the next phase. But I'd also rather do the eval and find out it was nothing than spend more months worrying about it. If it isn't bothering you that much, then maybe you don't want to get him evaluated. But since you took the trouble to email me about it, I'm guessing it's bugging you enough to initiate the process to rules things out for your own peace of mind.

On one hand, it totally could be some kind of sensory integration thing. A friend of ours with a sensory integration disorder is fine in wide open spaces and when there are a bunch of kids not necessarily paying attention to him, but has problems in smaller spaces or one-on-one with another kid for a playdate. So it could be some mild form of this.

Or it could just be part of being 16 months old and going through some separation anxiety and dealing with the independence and control issues of that age.

If I had to place a cash bet on whether or not this was going to turn out to be anything, I'd bet that it's just a phase. The reason I think that is because Rebecca's Mom Spidey Sense isn't going off. I really think that if we let ourselves trust our instincts we can tell the difference between something and nothing with our own kids. But I'd still get the evaluation just so I'd know whether it was something or nothing and could stop wondering.