Manners help for an anxious school-age caveman
December 26, 2016 3:52 PM   Subscribe

My 9 year old is an anxious kid with severe attention deficits. He's seriously lacking in social niceties, e.g., "Why is grandma staying so long? I thought she was just dropping something off!" We may be failing him, and I he's clearly not going to pick these things up alone. Can you recommend an approach or resources that might not make him shut down entirely?

For the record he does ok with kids, but is frequently unkind to grown ups in the family he finds familiar and possibly annoying.

Finally, anything involving punishment is going to result in a shame/rage spiral and no progress. So I need positive, NVC type resources or scripts.
posted by chesty_a_arthur to Human Relations (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Should be "whom he finds" etc SORRY NERDS
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 3:53 PM on December 26, 2016 [12 favorites]

I can see two places to intervene here.
First, it sounds like he is just saying what he is thinking - he is not trying to mean. Does he know that certain things, while they may be 100% true are not considered polite? And why we don't say things that aren't polite? No kid is born understanding why Grandma might be bothered when we notice that she is staying longer than expected - it needs to be taught. Also, some kids have a naturally higher EQ (emotional intelligence) so they can figure this out on their own at a younger age. Others need to be taught - and may well need to be taught very explicitly. Not just the general idea but creating a specific list of things to say and not say.
So, I would start with a conversation about manners (and why grownups care) and then together make list of things that are good manner and things that not. Be as silly as you can!
Also, google "social stories" for ideas about what to teach and how to teach social intelligence for kids that are slow to pick up on it. There is a big issue in the autism community so there are lots of resources although most of them skew kind of young

Second, work with him on an appropriate apology for when he does say something that you find rude or inappropriate. I might try "Sorry, I didn't mean to say something that might hurt your feelings." So, it might go like this
Kid: Why is Grandma still here? I want to go play.
Parent: Kid, that is not polite. Remember what we say when we think might have accidentally hurt someone's feelings?
Kid: Sorry Grandma. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings.
Grandma: That's OK
Parent: Good job, kiddo! You said "sorry" and everything is OK with Grandma. (And then answer his question how soon can I go play)

When you recognize that a lot of this is really grown up social conventions that are like a set of secret rules, it can be easier to stay calm and not take personally when kids just say whatever is in their head.
posted by metahawk at 4:23 PM on December 26, 2016 [18 favorites]

I have a four-year-old on the spectrum, so none of this may be useful, but he's also a kid who is often lacking in social niceties and benefits from explicit teaching. Also has shame/rage spirals with any negative feedback or punishment. Here's what we've found to help:

1. Lots of discussion of what to expect in a situation before it happens. This doesn't work great for spontaneous events, but if you know Grandma is going to come over, mention this ahead of time as much as you can (we routinely anticipate minor schedule variations days in advance). This gives you plenty of casual time to talk about what things she might or might not do, what that might or might not mean, etc. Here just focus on explaining different alternate paths rather than prescribing behaviour: e.g. say "Grandma might go home quickly, but if she doesn't, why do you think that might be? What could you do if that happens?" etc. Having the practice beforehand cuts down (somewhat) on the tendency to blurt out awkward statements, and also makes him more comfortable with the situation. To the extent that your kid struggles with anxiety, this might help too.

2. You can probably sneak a lot of lessons in implicitly in the context of role-play. This is harder for my son, who doesn't hugely love pretend play, but if your kid likes e.g. playing with dolls or action figures or trains or anything that you can plausibly introduce characters and stories into, then these scenarios give him a chance to deal with and think about social situations in a safe way. You can make some of the characters super annoying which will give him a safe space to practice dealing with an annoying person kindly. Heck, with my son I've even gotten mileage out of explaining geopolitical events to him -- one of his big interests currently is maps and politics, so I've tried to use that as a window to explaining human motivation and interaction.

3. Giving him an easy out while in the situation. My son holds it together pretty well all told, but sometimes he's just had it -- he needs to escape a social situation, and having a way out makes a huge difference. If it takes place at home, he knows that he can always retreat to his bedroom, no questions asked; we also made a little "house" for him out of stacked furniture that he can retreat to so he can still be around but not have to interact; this is useful because he's afraid of missing out even when it's overwhelming. My son rarely has problems outside of the house -- he holds it together until we're home -- but he does know that he can always tell me he needs to leave or go to his own space, and we'll find him something if we at all can. Just knowing he has the option makes a huge difference. Again, I'm not sure our kids are the same, but I imagine anxiety might be pretty similar: to the extent that it rises more when he feels like he's not in control, knowing that he can control this might have a huge positive effect.

Best of luck to you. I'm sure you're not failing him. It's challenging for sure but you got this.
posted by forza at 4:27 PM on December 26, 2016 [10 favorites]

I really recommend social stories. I liked the older version of this book and have just ordered the newer edition, The New Social Story Book. They are basically walk throughs of common social situations with what to do and etiquette and mind modeling and empathy so that kids can understand and more importantly practise in advance the entire situation. Role play and constant empathy modeling helps. I used to use stuffed toys and small figurines for one child to act out scenarios, and for another, it was a favorite tv show we watched together that finally helped click a lot of social scenarios through talking about the characters. You need to find something they emotionally care about now to hook into if they don't have an easy ability to project which is a struggle for some kids.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 4:33 PM on December 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

I don't know jack about childhood development, attention deficit, and all the new theories and terms for things.

But it strikes me as highly unlikely the kid doesn't understand it's impolite to say this in front of grandma. He knows, but is not applying that knowledge IN REAL TIME. There's an extra cognitive process required to gauge external reaction to our words as we say them (i.e. to "hear ourselves talk"). That's HARD! It requires way more cognitive attention and horsepower than simply blurting, and needs to be practiced. Sounds like that's the chunk he's missing.

So if he's not entirely insensitive and unempathic to other people's feelings, then it's not so much a matter of teaching him to examine his words in retrospect (though that's a stepping stone), but of making him understand that care must be taken in communications - there's more involved than he's currently aware; it's a harder game than he's been playing up till now. Other people, no matter how relaxed and fluent they seem, are constantly monitoring, adjusting, constraining, and adapting in real time as they speak. You need to listen while you talk, which is two different tasks. Or.....just fall back on courtesy and polite cliches, which rarely get you in trouble. Also: smiling/eye contact would be a good element to add in here, too. Non-verbal, etc.

Anyway, I'm thinking that's the lesson he needs, rather than "when you say insensitive things people don't like it and you make them upset". Basic empathy can't be taught, but it doesn't sound like he lacks it.

Hope that's not too "duh"....
posted by Quisp Lover at 5:02 PM on December 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

I feel for you. In Fourth Grade, my anxious and ADD daughter told her teacher "I have a low tolerance for annoying people." He thought it was downright rude, and we were called in. We explained she was self-advocating, and that it was so much better that she said that than how she'd previously expressed herself or behaved previously, that we were actually proud of her.

But it was a reminder for us - she has a low tolerance for a lot of things. She's not likely to grow a thicker skin. She doesn't have a lot of agency in certain situations. And highly-verbal kids that are used to speaking plainly with their parents and who are included in conversations at home often fail the expectations of those with a different perspective on how children should behave.

It's hard for her to make eye contact, and she often talks over people, and she doesn't read faces well to gauge reactions. She hates not being able to speak as directly as she feels. She doesn't mind manners, but she hates extra fiddly little "niceties." She's a lot like me, actually.

It means I have to be wary, constantly redirect her energy and attention, model what I want her to do, and remind her of techniques that we know work, like "saving energy for the dismount" - meaning, not burning up all our energy in the first few hours of a day or event, when we know we have to hold it together until we can get home. The more she's spent, the less likely she'll behave well.

It's tiring for me, in managing myself -- and it's hard to be around sensitive people who can also be insensitive (be that my kid, or the person with whom we're interacting.) It makes me feel rude to people myself when I can't relax at social gatherings. A few of our friends think that because she presents well some days that she's playing us, or that it's just rudeness, but really, she's just really high-functioning. She can hold it together and use her CBT techniques well-enough, but things do snowball, and if there are too many problems, we have a meltdown on our hands. (Yes, CBT helped - it helped me to recognize when a cognitive triangle was happening, and when to help her break it.)

If there are issues with Executive Function, as it goes for my daughter, exercising politeness along with participating in conversation and maintaining good behaviour is hard, and it makes her less flexible - so your being ready and willing to get out of situation that's headed for difficulty might be one thing. I know that we can spend three hours at someone's house for a get-together, but five is tough. Manage your own energy as best you can!

I also have to remind myself that anxiety often looks like anger, or rudeness. When that kicks in, and you get a question such as "Why is grandma staying so long?" it's a warning that something's triggered the anxiety. So, it's great that he's sending up a flag. Addressing that part of it rather than just focusing on the manners in a way that acknowledges the complex emotions and physical responses (agitation) might help. "Grandma's visit is open-ended. We're enjoying each others' company, so it's taking a while. I see that you've had enough adult conversation, so a quick apology for your abrupt question and then you can excuse yourself for a while. Do you need my attention for something first? Or do you just need to escape? Come back in a bit if you like, otherwise we'll call you when it's time for a nice good-bye."

So, I guess every time this pattern emerges, you remind yourself of the steps that you and he need to take, and it will eventually become more seamless, and he'll manage better as he gains some more maturity and thus some more emotional and self-regulation (my kid is 12, and I can almost forget that this used to be a bigger problem for us.) So: (Rude question) is actually anxiety, name the feeling to him and figure out the solution to the problem using reminders about what works, remember the manners, then change the behaviour and break the triangle."

I'm sorry for the jumbled response, but to sum it up, I just remind myself that with my kid, all behaviour is communication. I wish you well!
posted by peagood at 6:16 PM on December 26, 2016 [25 favorites]

it strikes me as highly unlikely the kid doesn't understand it's impolite to say this in front of grandma.

oh god it is so completely likely the kid doesn't understand (know, believe) that adults and even old people have regular human feelings just like him and his peers. the idea that you can hurt adults emotionally by just saying things, that you are somehow their power-equal in this respect even though you aren't as physically strong as they are and you don't have any money and you can't hold your liquor and you don't have any real freedom and you aren't their equal/can't hurt them any other way, that is not intuitive to a child.

Children spend a lot of time being taught that the relations between the adult and the child worlds are not symmetrical or equal and that it is a sign of immaturity to think that they should be. so any child who guesses their power without being told is engaging in some strange and complex magical assumptions, not following logic. frankly it is very difficult to believe that an adult's feelings can be hurt by a child's careless remark until you are one and it happens to you. and in fact a lot of the time, adults' feelings are actually not hurt, they just pretend to be hurt so as to teach manners to and socialize children. so it's difficult in many ways.

anyway, you do have to tell some (most?) children in so many words that their opinions and their words do carry weight, are heard and listened to, and do matter to adults, and therefore they can make adults feel bad, before they can know it.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:22 PM on December 26, 2016 [29 favorites]

"Why is grandma staying so long? I thought she was just dropping something off!"

Just explain it to him - grandma is dropping something off, but while she is here she is also saying hello and this takes time, etc.
posted by heyjude at 12:24 AM on December 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think queenofbithynia nailed it. I see this a lot with kids whose parents work hard at being even-keeled and not subjecting their kids to their own emotional swings. They honestly don't know that adults have the same emotions as kids, and that kids can actually hurt adults. In addition to all of the good advice above, it might help to just explain the seemingly-obvious to him: Adults have all the same feelings as kids, but they are trickier than kids. If he makes another kid mad or sad, the kid will probably say, "I'm mad!" or cry or whatever, and he can correct course. Adults usually try to hide it when they feel negative emotions, so he has to try to guess what they might be feeling and to think through how his words/actions might make them feel before he says/does them. And yeah, social stories are a great way for him to practice thinking through that. (Any type of fiction can be good, especially if you read together and stop to talk about how each character might be feeling and why.)
posted by xylothek at 5:06 AM on December 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

In my experience:

Strong coaching just before an encounter: "Grandma will be here in five minutes. What are some nice things to say to her when she arrives?" seems most effective. Frankly, I think this is a thing that will really only make a large shift when the cave-kid makes some developmental progress, and there's a limited amount you can do besides firm and kind reminders and corrections until the kid's brain is ready to incorporate this stuff fully.
posted by latkes at 7:48 AM on December 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Seconding dorothyisunderwood's suggestion for Social Stories. I am going to add a recommendation for modeling/practicing these skills. Practice makes perfect, after all. So on commutes/driving to activities, rehearse appropriate responses and reactions to scenarios. You can even make up characters and he can play different parts - he can take turns playing "grandma" and you can be the "grandson" (or any other roles/people/situations in which he's displayed the undesired behavior). You can make it more fun by doing silly voices, if you want to. Afterwards - ask him how it felt to be "grandma" and how it felt to play the "grandson." These practice lessons shouldn't last anymore than 10-15 minutes, framed as a game to make the drive/dinner prep/chore time pass more quickly.
posted by Gyre,Gimble,Wabe, Esq. at 9:00 AM on December 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! Part of my difficulty is that grandma left in a huff, which is a separate question, although it makes it a little harder for me to gauge exactly how obnoxious a regular person would find this. In any case, I appreciate the thoughtful answers and this has given me plenty to follow up on.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 9:08 AM on December 27, 2016

Grandma has some growing up to do.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:23 AM on December 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

He's not "seriously lacking in social niceties". He can improve his handling of adults if you help him with the comments above, but he's communicating what he's feeling and wanting, which places him well ahead of Grandma already and he's only nine.
posted by tillsbury at 11:43 AM on December 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm with everyone else that your kid seems like he's doing just fine, but I saw a bit of advice on Ask recently that stuck with me. It mentioned treating every thing you say to another person as a thing with physical weight. Like before you say anything, imagine holding it in your hands and throwing it like a ball for the recipient to catch.

This might work in helping your kid understand the effect of words. It has helped me.
posted by zutalors! at 2:09 PM on December 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

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