What’s Up With That Kid?

“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Once upon a time, I worked with at-risk youth and their families. Before this experience, I was naïve to the suffering of children in my own community. Working with these incredibly resilient families tore me from my ignorance and thrust me into the daily trenches.

This is not an explicit call to action but if you feel persuaded to support at risk families in your community, I encourage you do so.

I want to address the attitude some adults hold regarding children that demonstrate “poor social skills.” If you remember, Tell Me About Your Mother, we talked about how children will do whatever it takes to get the attention of their parents because they need to do so to survive.

Kids need their parents to regulate their emotions. The developing brain renders children incapable of saying “Hey I need your attention to thrive and make sense of my world.” They are only capable of communicating their needs by demanding your attention through their behavior. They do this with the hopes that you will comfort them or at the least acknowledge them.

Let Me Provide You An Example

I would like you to imagine, for a moment, that a young girl lives in a home with an overworked and exhausted mother (or father). The young girl goes to her mother for affection and attention and is brushed aside. The mother is exhausted from trying to manage on limited finances and maintain a household. She does not have the attention to give.

The young girl still needs attention and now tries a different strategy. Maybe the young girl remembers that the last time she made a mess or cried she was able to get her mother’s attention. “Aha” the young girl thinks. The young girl starts to cry and the mother comes to her. Maybe after awhile the mother learns that her daughter is “just dramatic” and does not need attention every time she cries. The young child still needing attention and affection now has to try a different strategy. Maybe the young girl throws a tantrum and is inconsolable (remember she needs a parent to regulate her emotions). Maybe mom responds negatively but negative attention is still acknowledgement.

Imagine it goes on this way for years. 

Now imagine that the same young girl goes to school. The young girl learned through interactions at home that if I cry, scream, and tantrum I will get attention. The young girl may use these learned skills in the school environment.

Is this child acting out? No, this child has adapted to her environment to get her basic human needs met. The child does not know that she does not need to act that way with all adults. How could she know? Some children learn that they do not need to act that way in school or with every adult (or peer). This usually happens by way of a compassionate and patient teacher or school counselor. Other children may not adapt as quickly and as easily in the academic environment. Imagine how confusing this is for the child.

The mother in this story is not a villain. She is overworked and exhausted. She is spread too thin with too little support. The teacher in this story is not a villain if she loses her patience and struggles with compassion. She is also overworked with thirty kids that have thirty different needs staring at her every day.

What is the solution: Support, Education, Patience, and Compassion.

Is the situation hopeless? No, although it feels that way. We can do better. We must be patient and compassionate with ourselves. We need to do a better job of supporting all families.

This example does not attempt to capture children struggling with developmental disabilities or any other social impairments/challenges.

Parents and their children can benefit greatly from professional support (e.g., therapist, psychologist, school social worker, pediatrician, occupational therapist) to learn healthier interpersonal skills. This does not mean you are a bad parent, it just means you need support. 


“Every child deserves to be born wanted and loved”


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