Intimacy in Relationships

Is your child struggling to develop close relationships?

Is your child:

  • Gullible?
  • Getting to know a lot of people but making no close friends?
  • Easily taken advantage of by peers?
  • Keeping others at arm’s length?
  • Having friendships that last only a short time?
  • Having trouble forming lasting social connections?
  • Well-liked at school but doesn’t maintain close friendships? Instead, spending weekends at home or on the computer?
  • Able to name some friends but never gets invited to birthday parties?
  • Isolated; sitting alone at lunch and always keeping to himself?


Your child may be having difficulty developing intimate relationships, meaning close ties with others that go beyond just casual encounters in the cafeteria or being on the same baseball team.

An underlying contributor here is likely poor emotional awareness and emotional reciprocity, which means knowing your own feelings about a topic and being able to read others’ emotions. Some teens seem to be disconnected emotionally.

If you ask how they feel, you often get “I don’t know” as a response. Your teenager may say he “never thinks about feelings.” He might puzzle over the question or give a highly intellectual answer instead of an emotional one.

Challenges in these areas, combined with difficulty initiating and maintaining conversations, influence a person’s ability to form close friendships. Often, these teenagers may be very polite and studious but also very quiet, uncertain of how to join in on a conversation about the Broncos, for example, even though he watched the game.

Other times, teenagers have different interests from their peers and struggle to find a connection with others, instead seeming very different.


The social skill of intimacy refers to the ability to form close, connected, reciprocal, and lasting friendships.

Psychologists think of intimacy as the pinnacle of social skill development. Intimacy was included as one of the psycho-stages in the renown developmental model proposed by Eric Erikson (1959) [4]. In the social skills framework presented on the cleape site, we have considered 6 social skills, and intimacy tops the list. The six major social developmental phases are grouped into 3 stages, and presented on [1b]*:

  1. Presence – the ability to be around other people and to focus attention on others
  2. Parallel play – the ability to play near other children

Stage 1 requires primarily motor skills. Kids might be witnessed playing at the park on the same slide or in a preschool using the same sand table.

  1. Interacting – the ability to play together and share toys or materials
  2. Conversations – the ability to have a back and forth conversation

Stage 2 requires primarily language skills. Kids might be observed sharing toys, playing make-believe or talking about how to play a card game.

  1. Empathy– the ability to identify, understand, and care about other’s emotions
  2. Intimacy – the ability to develop and maintain close relationships

Stage 3 requires primarily emotional skills. Kids might be observed laughing over an inside joke, making elaborate plans for a sleepover, or comforting a friend in distress.

As you can see from this model, intimacy requires a lot of skills to build on each other. These emotional skills are important because to make strong connections with others, you have to be able to understand how the other person feels and to be empathetic when considering another person’s emotional experience. If a child is only able to focus on her own emotions and not on other peoples’ emotions, it may feel unpleasant to be with her.

In addition to all the foundational skills in the motor, language, and emotional areas, intimacy includes advanced social skills like:

  • emotional reciprocity
  • emotional awareness
  • keeping confidences
  • offering care and support for a friend in need
  • perspective taking
  • advanced conversation skills

If someone is unable to have insight into his own emotions or someone else’s, making a deeper social connection is challenging. To make connections, people have to be able to have a good conversation, including listening, finding areas of interest, and building on a social connection [3,5].

Children with disabilities tend to struggle with developing close friendships. For example:

Autism: Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders often struggle with conversation, emotional awareness, and emotional reciprocity. Teenagers with autism do much better when they have at least one close friend with whom they can share interests, have lunch, and spend time with in clubs, studying, and on the weekends.

Emotional Distress: Children and teenagers with depression or anxiety may struggle to form intimate friendships.

Trauma: Individuals who have experienced trauma or challenges with a primary attachment figure may be more guarded and withdrawn, unable to connect in a meaningful way.

Often, working through trauma, anxiety, depression or other concerns requires the support of loved ones. People with a strong support network are more likely to make strides toward recovery, so it is important to have close friends as kids work through hard times.


Some children really have trouble making friends. Perhaps you have a really quirky kid who has peculiar interests and a unique interaction style. That’s okay! Research shows that all people really need is one good friend and one close relationship at home. No matter how quirky your child is, there has to be one other kid who is just as quirky and needs a friend just as much. Don’t give up!

Find peers with common interests: Collaborate with your teenagers’ school resources to be sure he or she is involved in activities that will allow him or her to meet like-minded peers. Identify other teenagers who love WWII or who will play Minecraft or Magic all day like your own.

Meet your child where he or she is: Look at the social skills phases presented in the Clinical section of this article. Do not expect your child to display advanced skills too soon. If your child is in the motor phase, set up playdates at the park, monster truck rally or rodeo. If your child is in the language phase, set up sleepovers at your house where you can model and practice conversations. If your child is in the emotions phase, set up activities like movies and book clubs where your child can learn more about feelings.

Connect with mental health professionals at school: School Psychologists or Counselors can guide your child to social experiences in which he might connect with other children. Be sure your child is not being bullied. If the school environment is bullying, bring this concern up with the administration at once.

Provide modeling and guidance: Make sure your child has opportunities to practice conversation through supervised playdates and outings. Make comments on emotions in yourself and others, in a neutral way, to serve as a model for your teenager.

Consider whether your child needs close friends. Some individuals with ASD may not need to have super close relationships. Psychologists consider whether or not the individual has symptoms of emotional distress. If so, then help with relationships is a crucial step to developing and living a full and happy life.


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Attention (Focusing): children who have attention problems may have difficulty forming intimate relationships
  • Restricted Patterns of Behavior or Interests (Repetitive Behavior, Perseverating, Rigidity, Rigid Behavior): children who struggle to form close relationships may have difficulty with rigidity and restricted patterns of behavior
  • Anxiety (Social Anxiety, Generalized Anxiety): children who are anxious often struggle to engage socially and develop close relationships
  • Depression: children who are depressed often have difficulty forming close relationships due to lack of social motivation or negative interactions with others


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • ADHD: includes challenges with sustained attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Sometimes, teens with AD/HD put others off by being too much. Challenges with attention make it hard to listen to and connect with others. [8, 9]
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: includes deficits in social communication and restricted interests or behaviors. Challenges with social and emotional reciprocity influence the ability to make friends
  • Emotions & Mood disorders: includes significant symptoms of anxiety or depression that may lead to denial or avoidance of emotional topics. Extreme shyness may lead a teenager to avoid meeting people and forming close friendships for fear of rejection
  • PTSD or Attachment: includes symptoms of trauma. Individuals who have experienced something traumatic, including poor or inconsistent care, may struggle with emotional content that can trigger the re-experiencing of negative events. Individuals may be guarded and avoid emotional intimacy


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child, or to consult ‘live’ with a psychologist
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to provide an evaluation for diagnostic clarification
  • Psychotherapist: to provide CBT interventions have been shown to be effective in helping those with ASD make gains in recognizing and understanding emotions, improving perspective taking and social skills and managing co-occurring depression and anxiety

These professionals may recommend the following tests for this symptom:

  • TOVA: this measure will provide information about attention, which could impact social functioning
  • WISC-V: this measure of intelligence provides information on abilities in verbal comprehension, fluid reasoning, visual spatial, working memory, and processing speed. Understanding a child’s cognitive profile can help us understand strengths and weaknesses that may be associated with social skill deficits
  • ADOS-2 Module 4: this measure assesses social communication and restricted, repetitive behavior, this test is used to rule in or out the presence of an Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Roberts, BASC-3, Clinical Interview, RCMAS, CDI-2, Human Figure Drawing, MMPI-A, BDI, BAI, Rorschach, Brief Projective Measures: these measures are projective assessments and emotional assessments that use drawing tasks, open ended questions, interviews, rating scales, and sometimes storytelling, as part of a neuropsychological or psychological evaluation


[1] Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

[1b] Huckabee, Helena, personal communications. This model of social development was advanced by Dr. Huckabee, a pediatric neuropsychologist with expertise in social skills and autism. See ‘About us’ page for more information.

[2] Koegel, Lynn Kern & LaZebnik, Claire (2010). Growing up on the spectrum: A guide to life, love and learning for teens and young adults with autism and Asperger’s.


[3] McMahan, Ian (2009). Adolescence.


[4] Newman, Barbara M. & Newman, Phillip R. (2014). Development through life: A psychosocial approach.


[5] Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.


[6] 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.


[7] UCLA PEERS Clinic

[8] Giler, Janet Z. (2011). Socially ADDept: Teaching social skills to children with ADHD, LD, and Asperger’s.


[9] Cook, Julia (2013). Thanks for the feedback, I think (Best me I can be!)


Image Credit:
Name: Best Friends Forever – two 12 year old teenage girls holding hands in an infinity forever sign to signify BFF…
Image ID:254207872 (Shutterstock)
By: dnaveh
Previously licensed on:
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology

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