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Sometimes an extroverted child is so intent on gaining peer acceptance that he develops social anxiety disorder. He repeatedly tries to connect with classmates, neighbors, teammates and kids at summer camp; however, the verbal and non-verbal nuances of “the social world” are too squishy to master.
I know this all too well because my nine-year-old is one of them. He’s the sweetest kid in world; however, by kindergarten, other kids began to reject his friendship attempts. At times, he was even bullied. I was surprised by all of this, but assumed these were isolated incidents. However, my son’s social struggles continued in first grade.
To my knowledge, no classmates bullied him that year; however, I could clearly see, at the first-grade Christmas party, that the other boys wanted nothing to do with him. They ignored him when he tried to talk with them. It was as if he wasn’t there.
Each time my son approached them, he was polite and respectful, so why the snub? I was perplexed. The only thing I could think of was something his teacher had mentioned a couple months earlier…
Putting on a show
The first time that I heard about my son’s class clown behavior, I was shocked. It was during a parent-teacher conference. I wanted to know what his first-grade teacher meant by that term. What, specifically, was he doing? I can’t recall her exact response, except that she never provided an example. She seemed hesitant to do so.
I then asked if he was disrupting the class and if I needed to speak with him about it. “No,” she replied reluctantly, “It’s not to that point… And I don’t want to give him a complex.”
A complex? What in the world…
I left that meeting with far more questions than I had going into it. My son was smart, outgoing and extremely kind, so this was the last thing I expected to hear.
I followed up with his kindergarten teacher, as well as both of the teachers from his four-year-old preschool class, to see if he’d been the same way in their classrooms and not mentioned it. All three of them said “no” and remarked that him acting like a class clown was surprising to them, too.
I asked my son about his behavior and he didn’t provide any insight, either. “I don’t know. It’s just my thing,” was all that he said.
Unfortunately, however, this new persona was achieving the opposite of what he intended.
Looking in the rear-view mirror
I’ve learned a lot about anxiety since then. In hindsight, I now realize that, when his kindergarten teacher had told me the year before that he wore his winter coat (zipped up and hood on) all day long, it was his way of trying to hide.
I wish I’d thought more about the fact that he didn’t wear the coat at home. We had moved the year before from a state farther south and, in preschool, he had complained how cold it was when it the temperature was in the 60s outside. His teacher said he was always smiling, so she and I assumed it was just a quirk, or that he really was cold. (In my defense, helicopter parent horror stories were everywhere at that time, and I didn’t want to be one of them!)
I also suspect that attending my son’s first-grade Christmas party is why he wasn’t acting like a class clown that afternoon. My presence helped ease his nerves enough that he was able to maintain self-control.
Being in close proximity to him also may have put him slightly more at ease at the bus stop. Similar scenarios played out there each day. Every morning and again, during many walks home after school, I watched my son try to talk with neighborhood kids. Like his classmates, they acknowledged him as little as possible; sometimes not at all.
In one instance, when my son was in second grade, a fourth grader, who lived next door, made a snarky comment, even though I was walking with my daughter, just 20 feet ahead. He had tried to strike up a conversation about something that he’d found on the bus and disassembled. (He wants to be an engineer so that was exciting to him.) “What do you want? An award?” she had replied sarcastically.
The girl was normally nice to everyone, so I was surprised by the way she was talking to him. If she was treating him like this when I was so close by, what were kids doing during the bus rides to and from school, when no adults were within ear shot? Or in the school cafeteria? Or in our neighborhood?
Under the surface
Little did I know that these dynamics were largely due to a child who was incredibly stressed out when I wasn’t around. His class clown antics were very public and, despite many verbal and non-verbal cues that would make most kids stop, he couldn’t. He was, quite literally, in Fight, Flight or Freeze mode. (When kids are in this state, they may not even recall what happened.)
A deep need for social interaction, coupled with countless failed attempts to make friends, had led to a full-blown anxiety disorder…by age six.
Reading the signs
For the most part, my son was composed when each year’s teacher was doing her lesson plans. He paid attention and got excellent grades.
Less structured times (during lunch, on the bus, at recess, etc.) were a different story, though. He became dysregulated, and unable to calm himself down, when it was time to “be social.” I had to figure out this pattern on my own, though.
Each time I inquired about how lunch and recess were going, I was told he was always talking with other kids.
That’s because he’s an extrovert. He gets energy from being around others, and he’s a smart kid who, in most scenarios, is great at problem solving. Both of those factors compelled him to keep trying to figure out the secret formula to social nuances.
He practically refuses to be by himself, even if he’s being mistreated. So, unless you’re listening to the words being exchanged, it appears, from a distance, that everything is fine.
The instant you realize a child isn’t willfully misbehaving, but rather that his heightened impulsivity or argumentativeness are signs he’s under too much stress, your own stress suddenly drops.– Dr. Stuart Shanker, author of Self-Reg
Breaking the stress cycle
So, what should you do when the very thing that makes a child happy and gives him energy (socializing with others) becomes stressful for him on an ongoing basis? Well, that’s an article in and of itself: How to navigate social anxiety in children who are extroverts.
I’ll give you a hint, though. It starts with understanding the whole child and helping him learn to manage his anxiety; not teaching him social skills – or “social competencies” as Michelle Garcia Winner, CCC-SLP, founder of Social Thinking® prefers to say. And believe me, she knows what she’s talking about, especially when it comes to teaching social competencies to a child who has clinical depression or anxiety disorder (both of which will impact the child’s executive functions).
Nurturing a child’s strengths can help, too!
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