Advice on a quirky child

September 12, 2011

Q. My daughter is somewhat shy, but she likes attention, too. She is very engaging, has strong opinions and interests and she can certainly hold her own.

Her behavior seems a little off, however, because she doesn’t seem to care what other people think. This makes me wonder if my daughter fits into a “type” because she also is slow to pick up on social cues and she isn’t as socially savvy as some of her peers, especially when she’s in a larger group. I’m not so strong in those areas myself. But she has had high-quality child care since she was 6 months old and has received lots of good training from her providers. Nevertheless, they’ve always said that she marches to her own beat and her teacher says that she is “quirky.” Some of this must be her wiring, because her younger brother has a great deal of poise and he is much younger than she is.

I’m not that worried about her overall because she is a happy child; she has friends and she does well in school. But I do worry about middle school, when the opinions of her classmates will matter much more than they do now. How do I prepare her for that?

Would she benefit from a drama camp to build her public-speaking abilities? A swim team to build team activities? She shows some interest in both of those areas and she also likes to draw, but that may be more for comfort than anything else.

Also, what adjustments could we be making in our own lives? We both work full-time and basically spend the rest of our time with our children.


(Hadley Hooper/for The Washington Post)

A. Having a quirky child is like walking on a tightrope; it’s so easy to make the wrong move.

If you lean too much in one direction, you might be letting your daughter’s differences define her or define the whole family but if you lean too far in the other direction, you might be holding her back or making her feel inadequate.

The best thing you can do is to trust your instincts — and hers. Because she likes acting and swimming and art, let her join a swim team, go to a drama camp or take an art class, not because these activities might help her speak better in public or make her a good team player or comfort her when she’s low, but because she is probably more talented in these areas than she is in math or science. When you let your daughter build on her strengths, she will feel like a winner, and this will give her the courage to tackle the hard subjects as well as the easy ones.

You also should make sure that your child is fitting into your life and your schedule as much as possible. If you always fit your life into her schedule, she will begin to think that she comes first; that her wants are more important than your needs and that her opinions matter more than anyone’s opinions, including yours. The more you treat your child like she’s the center of the universe, the more surprised she’s going to be when she grows up and gets a job.

You can help your child even more if you buy a looseleaf notebook — the kind you used in high school — and divide it into eight sections: talking; touching; seeing; listening; moving; eating; sensing and socializing. Now write down everything you can remember about your child’s development and file these memories into the right section of your notebook. This log will help you understand your daughter better, especially if you read “Quirky Kids” (Ballantine; $15). This excellent book, written by pediatricians Perri Klass and Eileen Costello, describes some of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) problems that bother many children today. It also lists the books and Web sites that describe these problems in depth and the therapies that help children the most.

You probably won’t get the right therapy, however, unless you get the right diagnosis, and you may not get the right diagnosis unless you get an evaluation from an experienced professional.

If it turns out that your daughter has Asperger’s, for instance, she’ll probably need to join a “social skills” class to learn how to carry on a normal conversation and you’ll need to read “Asperger’s Syndrome” by Australian psychologist Tony Attwood (Jessica Kingsley; $20) — or indeed, any book by Tony Attwood. He’s one of the leaders in this field and one of the best.

Despite all this help, your child’s quirkiness may make you feel sad sometimes. If it does, just tell yourself: It’s better to be a little quirky than to be just like everyone else.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com

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4 Kelly will have a live Q&A at noon Sept. 22 at washingtonpost.com/advice.

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