Socially Awkward Teen May Need Professional Help

By Marguerite Kelly

  Q:  I am in tears as I write this e-mail.

My 16-year-old son is missing out on so much of his life because he has a social problem that began when he was very young. The problem grew worse in middle school, where he was teased unmercifully and to such an extent that a teacher called all the parents, including us, after she had witnessed it.

And yet our son had never even told us that he was having a problem. He never does.

Now he's in high school and has been having lunch with a couple of guys, which is progress, I guess. For two years he had been eating lunch by himself, sitting in the hall.

Despite his lack of friends, the teachers love my son. He does his work at school and he does his homework. He never disrupts the class or breaks the rules. He does nothing outside of school, however, and we're afraid that his awkward social skills won't improve unless he learns how to interact with his peers. My husband and I prod him a little to join clubs or sports and he did play a fall sport, but that's over. Now he seems more content to be at home.

We do invite his friends to go on vacations with us a couple of times a year and though they come with us, they never reciprocate or even include him in the usual weekend activities when we get back home.

Now this is homecoming weekend at school and once again my son will be home while everyone else is having fun. This breaks my heart. We have this wonderful kid, but no one really seems to like him.

Is there something we can do? Or are we concerned over nothing? Will this change on its own? I don't want to hurt him by saying too much . . . or too little.

A:  Lots of children go through a lonely patch, but if your son hasn't had one or two good long-term friendships, it's time to step in.

Friendships often stop before they start because a child is shy or behaves in an eccentric way or has low self-esteem, but this problem could also be a sign of a nonverbal communication disorder. Although some nonverbal problems can create learning problems, others can confuse a child's social skills, and both conditions can have profound and disturbing effects.

The child with this communication disorder may miss the cues that everyone else gets, overreact to other cues and have trouble understanding what his classmates are really saying -- or making them understand what he is trying to say.

One might assume that words would transmit all of the emotional meaning that is intended in any face-to-face conversation, but studies show they convey only about 7 percent of the information. Gestures, facial expressions, posture and even the floor space between two people account for 55 percent and the tone of voice accounts for the remaining 38 percent. Furthermore, if the words and the body movements don't match, the body's message will prevail.

Unless a child -- or an adult -- can read other people correctly, and use his body to reflect the same message as his words, he will have poor social skills. And unless he can express himself clearly -- both in words and in movement -- he will probably be misunderstood.

Have your son tested by a psychologist to see if he has a nonverbal communication disorder, and if he does, ask the psychologist to recommend a therapist who knows how to teach social skills to children, because it doesn't have to be a lifetime sentence.

With specific instruction, he can learn many social skills, including how closely he can stand to another person without being seen as a threat, how intensely he can touch another person -- and where and how he can say what he thinks without hurting someone's feelings and how he should respond to others. What comes naturally to you and your husband may be quite difficult for your son.

You'll find this disorder explained thoroughly -- from identification to treatment -- in two excellent books: "Helping the Child Who Doesn't Fit In" by Stephen Nowicki and Marshall P. Duke (Peachtree, $15.95) and "Teaching Your Child the Language of Social Success," (Back Bay, $14.95) by the same two authors and Elisabeth A. Martin.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.comor to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.