We all know a kid like Chaim. Maybe he is in your son’s class or he rides with him on the school bus. Maybe he was even in your child’s bunk last summer. At first Chaim seems like a regular kid, bright and attentive. But then, something about him seems to be a little bit off. It’s not that Chaim has negative character traits. It’s just that he somehow never fits in. It’s not like there is something definitely wrong with him. It’s just that he has this annoying habit of doing things differently than everyone else.
Maybe Chaim laughs too loud, or stands too close to other people. Maybe he makes funny faces or silly gestures. Or maybe he just moves too slowly or dresses a little weird. None of these things are a crime, but they are enough to make Chaim a social outcast. The other boys inevitably become uncomfortable with his behavior and they eventually avoid including him in their social activities.
Deep down Chaim is miserable and his parents are at their wits’ end. They would be a lot happier if they would know that what Chaim is experiencing is, in fact, quite common. He is the victim of social rejection because he has never fully learned correct social skills. He has not discovered the secret of nonverbal communication. The good news is that there is help for Chaim and other kids like him.
Nonverbal communication is the unspoken rules by which we interact socially with others. Facial expressions, gestures, postures, tone of voice, interpersonal distance, clothing, and other elements all fall into this category. Most of us have naturally learned how far apart to stand from another child in the playground, how loudly to speak, how to smile at others, and how to dress within a certain code. But children like Chaim never picked up on these cues. It’s as if they have a learning disability that prevents them from communicating nonverbally with others in a proper way.
This is not to say that Chaim is in any way slow or learning disabled. He could be the brightest and most intelligent student. He could be getting A’s in all of his classes. Yet there seems to be some mental block that prevents him from establishing lasting friendships or from being accepted as part of the crowd.
In his book, It’s So Much Work to Be Your Friend: Helping Children With Learning Disabilities Find Social Success, Richard Lavoie writes that some children tend to “misinterpret the verbal and nonverbal language of others, causing the relationship to have an unnecessary – and often explosive – conclusion.” Janet Giler, PhD, a California therapist and author, cites children’s inability to understand the “language of friendship.” Often, they misread playful joking and teasing and overreact to statements or gestures that were not intended to be hurtful or negative.
Perhaps it is correct to say that there are two layers of the language. In any relationship, the words that people say are extremely significant, but it is the unspoken language of friendship that truly allows relationships to flourish and grow. Learning how to interpret tone, gesture, facial expressions, and body language of the people around you is of the utmost importance in order to maintain relationships.
How can you learn to read non-verbal cues? For children, Todd Parr has a wonderful set of illustrated “Feelings Flashcards.” They contain pictures of different people’s expressions and body language when they experience a specific emotion. Going over these colorful flashcards can help sensitize children to non-verbal communication. For teenagers and adults, working in small groups with other people who lack these skills can help, as they learn from their mistakes as well as the miscues of others.
Some things parents can look out for are:
Rhythm and use of time – Does the child seem out of sync? Is he reacting too slowly or too quickly?
Interpersonal distance and touch – Does she seem to sit uncomfortably close to others? Does she continuously touch her classmates?
Gestures and postures – Does he smile when he is angry? Does she pout when she is happy?
Voice tone and pitch – Does he talk too loudly in a quiet room? Does she barely whisper when answering a question in class?
Style of dress – Is he dressed in short sleeves in mid-January? Is her hair appropriately combed?
Become consciously aware of these issues and make a special effort to evaluate your child in these areas. Once you have pinpointed the problem areas, you are on your way to remediation. A parent, an educator, or a social skills counselor can teach these skills through example, by play-acting different scenarios, or through various practices and exercises. Some children may need a little bit of informal short-term intervention. Others may need extensive assistance with a professional therapist or special educator. The good news is that these children by and large respond well. In my experience, I’ve found that they can be helped tremendously and within a reasonable amount of time can be interacting positively with their peers.
The key to successful remediation is awareness. The child who behaves inappropriately is not doing this on purpose. He is doing it because he doesn’t know any better. He does not realize that his responses and reactions are making others uncomfortable with him. He is bewildered by the fact that others avoid him and has no idea why they think he is weird.
Take Chaim, for instance. By the second day of camp last summer, it became pretty clear to him that no one wanted to count him in for a game of softball and no one wanted to sit near him during shiur. The other boys weren’t especially mean to him, they just all seemed to avoid him. And his counselor, although still including him as part of the bunk, always seemed a bit irritated or impatient with him.
Chaim’s parents recognized that there was a problem and decided to do the right thing. They observed his social behavior and realized where his problems lay. Then, together with a social skills counselor, they set out on a path of remediation. With time, Chaim will be well on his way to softball games, chavrusas, and eventually the chuppah!