I realize that with all my focus on what not to do, what doesn’t work, how taking situations at face value isn’t necessarily a good idea because kids might not report what’s going on, and the harms of expecting kids who have a hard time with social stuff to act normal, it might come off like I’m saying don’t do anything.
I’m not. It’s just, as I said before, I’m not entirely sure what does work since I never found something effective, but I can talk about the stuff that wasn’t harmful to me growing up, and that’s what I’ll do now.
So what should you teach to bullied kids and to kids who have a hard time with social stuff? In no particular order:
- Basic etiquette. Please and thank you. Not interrupting unless it’s urgent or an emergency (make sure that you allow that exception, because literal-minded kids might wait until you’re done talking to tell you the fire alarm in the laundry room is going off and smoke’s coming out of the drier and it’s really hot, I say from personal experience), that sort of thing. Important for letting others know you care about them and also for not accidentally pissing people off as often. Also important for teaching the difference between a request and a demand. Finally, important because it gives them the tools to choose to be rude on purpose, and contrary to what most adults think, kids getting to choose to be rude is actually an important and good thing: If someone’s being totally unreasonable at you, you have to be rude sometimes to get them to back off. Teaching your kid how to do that is important.
- Basic hygiene. Wash before you smell bad. Brush your teeth regularly. Wash your hands after using the bathroom. Sneeze into a tissue or into your arm. Etc. Important for personal health and for preventing stuff from spreading to others. However, don’t confuse teaching hygiene with teaching hygiene the way everyone else does it. For example, if your kid finds a fine spray showerhead painful like I do, try switching up to a more potent jet (I know, seems counter-productive, but it works for me), or suggesting your kid take baths instead. Hygiene shouldn’t be painful or traumatic.
- Basic aesthetics: If someone else has sensory issues, fluorescent-green-on-fluorescent-orange might be literally painful to look at (sez a person who does find it literally painful to look at – see also fluorescent pink on white). This is just a consideration thing: don’t wear stuff that makes other people feel like their eyes want to burst.
- Responsible use of scents: Again, a consideration thing. Scent sensitivities are becoming increasingly common as allergies and asthma become more common. People with sensory processing disorders also may have difficulty with scents. People who are pregnant often find scents overwhelming, and this hypernosmia is implicated in morning sickness. Don’t wear stuff that makes others sneeze, cough, wheeze, itch, get headaches, or throw up. On a personal side: Many scents make me do the first four, so I’ll appreciate it if nothing else.
- Fashion basics: Care needs to be exercised with this, so that it’s not presented as something the kid has to do or as a “fitting in” thing. But teaching kids about what cuts are flattering to which body types and rules of formality for clothing will help them later on for stuff like job interviews. Best to present it as a “here’s something you can use if you want to, when you want to” type of thing.
- Exercise basics: How to exercise safely (i.e., how to avoid overtraining injuries, dehydration, etc) and responsibly (clean up your equipment when you’re done, don’t put others at risk, etc), and why it’s important to exercise. Important for health and wellness – exercise improves control of many chronic illnesses, for example. Care needs to be exercised so it’s a health and wellness thing, not a body shaming fat-phobic thing. Care also needs to be exercised so it’s not a “fit in” thing, so if your kid doesn’t like group sports like baseball, hockey or basketball, teach them stuff they can do alone (calisthenics) or get them in individual sports like gymnastics, weight lifting, or martial arts.
- Healthy eating basics: What makes a balanced meal, how to plan meals, etc. Also important for health and wellness, in addition to being important for independence later on. Again, as above, need to present it as “wellness” not as body shaming. The stuff I got in school was much better than the stuff I got at home on this front (long story there). As well, if texture is an issue with your kid, there’s nothing wrong with showing hir how to blend hir vegetables, and what things blended veggies really do well in (most soups, for example). Personal note: I ate no solid veggies (with the sole exception of raw mushrooms) until I was about 16 due to texture issues, but I avoided malnutrition thanks to purees and mashes. There are still veggies I can’t eat due to texture (tomatoes and celery, to name two, so I puree stuff with them).
- Why small talk is a thing: to those who don’t get small talk as a thing instinctively, we can get aggravated or upset by others’ insistence on following what appears to be a boring and inane social ritual. While my mental jury’s out on whether kids who have trouble with small talk should be taught it, teaching kids why others do it is good for helping them understand that, while, yes, everyone who’s outside can feel that it’s bloody freezing out, people like to complain at each other because it breeds a sense of camaraderie, not because they like filling the air with pointless noise. Knowing why it’s done helps make it less baffling and annoying. Analogy here: I used to have a throat-clearing stim I’d do when my throat was scratchy, because clearing it had the same soothing effect as scratching an itch. It used to annoy the hell out of my parents – to the point that in frustration they once locked me in my room until I’d “stop making that damn noise”. When they put two and two together that I’d only do it when I was coming down with something and started offering throat lozenges instead, I had a soothed throat so I didn’t do it as much and they felt far less annoyed by the sound because they knew I was doing it for a reason. For some autistic people, myself included, small talk is like my throat clearing – it’s aggravating if you don’t know that there’s a reason for it.
- Conversation skills: Stuff like how to change the subject when you’re uncomfortable, etc. Careful here, because it can seem like pressure to emulate normality. If it’s presented as skill to help effective world interaction and/or a sort of verbal self-defense, rather than Something You Must Do Always, it’s okay – my parents telling me kids would make fun if I talked too long wasn’t really helpful and made me feel like it was my fault I was bullied. My coworker telling me that I needed to insert pauses during my explanations so others would have time to ask questions if they didn’t follow me on step 2 rather than waiting until I’d gone through to step 20 and they’re totally lost? Helpful. Get the difference? One is “you must do this to fit in,” the other is “here’s how to be more effective at what you’re trying to do.”
- Non-violent conflict resolution: If hitting is the only thing that ever works for your kid, they’ll keep hitting. I say that as someone who used to be a violent kid. So, if you want your kid to quit being violent, you need to give them strategies for nonviolent conflict resolution, and even more importantly, you need to support them in their attempts at non-violent conflict resolution and make sure they’re supported in it wherever you’re not. Because if hitting is the only thing that works, they’ll keep hitting, and they’ll be annoyed with you for telling them to use strategies they probably tried and weren’t supported in.
- How to stand up for yourself: As above, they need support from adults for this to work. This includes stuff like when you need to walk away from a conversation, how to assert boundaries, how to ask for accommodations (if the kid has a disability), how and when to be defiant (I know, not something most parents want their kids to do, but as with choosing to be rude, it’s important to have the option of being defiant for anyone) how to ask for help, and when to get help. I haven’t fully mastered a lot of those skills, but they’re good skills for everyone to have.
Second-to-lastly: Consider what you’re teaching your kids with your actions. Kids learn a lot more from what adults around them do than what adults say. So, if you say, “It’s not okay to shout and hit just because you’re angry,” but you shout when you’re frustrated with some housework and you spank your kids, what do they learn? Not that it’s not okay to shout and hit. Rather, that grown-ups are hypocrites. At least, that’s what I learned when my parents taught me that way.
Lastly: Set reasonable standards for your kids. Parents of a kid I know hold hir to an unreasonable standard when xe’s upset – they demand that xe explain verbally what’s wrong in a calm tone of voice and without “showing an attitude” – i.e., facially expressing hir upset. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know any adult that can do that. How is it reasonable to expect that of a kid? I don’t think it is. Think about what you’re expecting of your child and whether or not it’s reasonable.
An addenum to the last point: Neurodivergent K has a great post on why expecting a kid with language issues to “use their words” even when upset is unreasonable. Read it. Think about it. I can’t add anything of substantial to it.