A boy receives a train set as a gift from his father, but after a few standard runs, decides it’s more interesting to crash the trains, and does so repeatedly. Another boy stubbornly refuses to wear his coat in the winter because he sees other children in thinner coats. A little girl thinks nothing of standing on tables and singing at the top of her lungs in public.
You might think those children’s unusual behavior would have a negative effect on their development. Not so — those are childhood stories about Steven Spielberg, Albert Schweitzer, and Madonna.
Some children are a little quirky and quite different from other children their age. They may be creative, insightful, and courageous, but they also may have to struggle with peer rejection, loneliness, taunts, and frustration. Their behavior may overshadow family events or make their siblings irritable. In a world that expects conformity, how do you make sure your unique child is happy and well-balanced?
When your child is different, what’s going on?
The first step is to make sure that there’s not an underlying issue. As you watch your child develop, you’ll see behavior that is within the average developmental cycle for a child his age. It’s a pattern of behavior that might trigger a sense that something is not quite right. Some parts of the pattern and some general examples are:
- Extremes: Very needy or very withdrawn; much too loud or much too quiet.
- Struggles with communication: A delay in speech development, rambling or interrupting conversation traits, difficulty understanding nonverbal cues, like facial expressions.
- Slowly developing or delayed motor skills: Clumsiness or difficulty in performing simple physical tasks, like getting dressed.
- Sensitivity: Disturbed by loud noises, irritated by the feel of some things on the skin (like a shirt label), bothered by wind or the brightness of the sun. Undersensitivity may be an issue as well: a child who twirls and spins uncontrollably, likes to run around naked or roll around in the mud or the dirt.
- Obsessing: Playing the same game again and again, in a particular way without variance.
In their book Quirky Kids: Understanding and Helping Your Child Who Doesn’t Fit In, Drs. Perri Klass and Eileen Costello call that trigger the “pivotal moment.” They state that “one extreme performance may be what it takes to crystallize in a parent’s mind all the floating anxieties and worries of many months.” The “pivotal moment” is not just one moment of extreme behavior, but the last in a series of “impossible-to-explain-away behavior that resonates with the parent’s long-considered and long-avoided fears.”
If you think there might be an underlying issue to your child’s unusual behavior, then getting a professional opinion or a diagnosis is an important step. Don’t be alarmed at the prospect. Dr. Stacie Bunning, one of GreatSchools’ consulting experts on child behavior, says, “Many times parents will avoid consulting a specialist out of fear — they are afraid of being blamed or judged, or they fear that their child will be forever ‘labeled.’ In fact, obtaining a professional opinion can be viewed as an aspect of information gathering, as parents work to make decisions about what is best for their child.” She points out that one aspect doesn’t necessarily make an entire personality. “There is so much more to an individual child than her particular diagnosis — strengths, skills, and unique traits should be celebrated, too.”
Is my child happy?
Quite often unusual behavior is not indicative of a disorder or a debilitating imbalance. Once you’ve established that with the help of a medical professional, what should you do, if anything? Is it OK for your daughter to spend her entire time in an active playground sitting alone having an invisible tea party, or for your son to wear his pajama bottoms on his head around the house? That depends on a few things. First, is your child happy? Does he like who he is? If the answer is yes to both questions and your child is different from other kids but suffering no real negative effects, be sure to consider:
- Siblings: Does your child’s unusual behavior have any negative effect on your other children? While the non-quirky siblings may provide comfort and good socialization skills, make sure they have some privacy and a bit of protection for their personal space and belongings. Also, make sure they know they can come to you for help and advice.
- You and your spouse or partner: Are you stressed or embarrassed as a result of your child’s oddities? Mom may think her son’s fondness for Barbie dolls is a passing phase, but Dad may take grave offense. It’s easier said than done, but try to find common ground where the two of you can lovingly understand and support not only your child, but each other.
- Your child’s school: Is your child performing and behaving well in school and establishing friendships? Talk to teachers and other parents for ideas and input. As she starts to make friends, make small efforts, like noticing what’s cool in dress, backpacks, etc., and providing a few of those for your child. Little things like that may help squelch the “She’s weird!” stigma.
Obviously, a child who behaves differently might have a hard time fitting in or making positive connections with people. His behavior may be a reaction to negative experiences, or be due to stress at home or at school, a lack of role models, or underdeveloped coping strategies.
Even if it’s just your child’s natural predisposition, there are a few things you can do to help make his life a little easier.
- Match your child’s unique style with a role model who can relate to and support your child’s ideals and needs.
- Create an open door of communication for your child to express her feelings about who she is, why she might feel she’s unusual, and what reactions she experiences.
- Intervene when necessary, especially at school. Children with quirky behavior can be the targets of bullying, taunting, and rejection, so be on the alert.
- Help him discover his unique skills and talents, and provide the tools with which he can explore and develop his other assets.
- Teach her traits that may not be in her behavioral repertoire but that do not squelch her inner exuberance. That may be as simple as showing her that there is a time and a place for everything. For instance, dancing and singing a song made up on the spot is wonderful, but it is not wonderful during science class.
- Accept and celebrate your child’s uniqueness. It may be hard to accept that your child does not have the innate abilities or desires to be the person you expected him to be, but there are a lot of reasons to celebrate the wonderful person he is.
A child’s right to be different
Drs. Melvin Levine, William Carey, and Allen Crocker, authors of Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics, closed their research textbook with a chapter aptly titled, “The Right to Be Different.” Some children may behave differently than their peers, they write, but they all have more in common than they have differences — similar emotions, potential for growth, and desires for happy and rewarding experiences. The doctors point out a new awareness of “stylistic differences” in child behavior, and that there is a “greater tolerance of… the expression of unique styles during childhood.”
There is, after all, something to be said for being unique, quirky, and unconventional. Many of us have stories of our own nutty behavior in childhood, and it’s tough to tell those stories without smiling. Bette Midler (surely an unusual child in her own right) put it best in her 1983 children’s book, The Saga of Baby Divine:
‘Cause you’re really a yawn if it goes!
If you’re still concerned that your wonderful, quirky child is ever going to make it in the world, take heart. Many children who don’t fit in during childhood become effective and creative adults. With love, support, and understanding, you can clear a path for your unusual child, and watch her walk, dance, or cartwheel into her full, unique potential.