Children who stand out from the crowd can be both a joy and a challenge.
Psychologist Dr Nicola Davies reveals the strengths and weaknesses of being destined
to be one of life’s outsiders
William Golding’s famous novel Lord of the Flies portrays the struggle of certain
individuals to survive a barbaric tribe mentality. It’s the quirky ones, in particular,
who are persecuted. But these characters are also the most intelligent and mature
ones, raising the question: is being quirky good or bad?
A lot depends on how other children react to your child’s quirkiness. If children
manage to belong to the ‘tribe’ yet retain individuality, it can be a good thing.
But children who battle to fit in and aren’t readily accepted by peers may have difficulty
living with their own quirkiness.
To gain further insight into the ups and downs of bringing up a child who stands
out from the crowd, we spoke to Dr Mark Bowers, director of the Brighton Center for
Pediatric Development in Michigan and author of 8 Key Ways to Raising the Quirky
Child: How to Help a Kid who doesn’t Quite Fit in.
What is quirkiness?
‘All of us have at least one or two quirks,’ says Dr Bowers. ‘Over 15
years of working with quirky kids, I developed the ‘STRESSED’ model to help better
understand what it means to be quirky. Basically, quirky children have interests
that are not run-of-the-
mill: they may dress or behave differently to other children. They may play an unusual
musical instrument – like the oboe – when everyone else is learning to play guitar,
and they often go against gender stereotypes.’
Obsessive preferences and weird eating fads are two typical hallmarks of quirkiness.
Dad Jack Fisher says: ‘My five-year-old son would only eat cheese, and this went
on for years.’ This sort of behaviour can be stressful for parents, but it isn’t
Adele Reeves, mother of six-year-old Jenny, says: ‘We noticed
from babyhood that Jenny always gravitated towards blue toys. Once she could speak,
she would always ask for anything blue if it was available. No-one could explain
why she had this fascination. I think we were more bemused than worried and when
she went to school the teachers helped us work through it.’
The ‘STRESSED’ model
THIS WAS DEVELOPED BY DR MARK BOWERS TO HELP
UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE ‘QUIRKY’.
Difficulty interacting with others
Difficulty with change
Difficulty regulating emotions and behaviours
Cognitive, emotional and behavioural problems
Over-or-under sensitive to noise, light, temperature
High IQ combined with low emotional intelligence or vice versa
Intense reactions to events
DEPTH SEEKER/DISINTEREST IN IMAGINATIVE PLAY
Difficulty with creativity and having fun
A strength or a challenge?
Often, quirkiness is associated with the capacity for original thought. ‘I think
high IQ often makes kids more likely to present as eccentric,’ says Dr Bowers. ‘Some
of the most creative and
innovative thinkers of our time – such as Albert Einstein – have been, or could have
been, identified as rather left field.’
Individual thought is good. It’s when eccentric behaviour causes stress or alienates
other people that problems arise. ‘Many quirks aren’t problematic, per se, until
they are joined with the general population,’ points out Dr Bowers. For instance,
an intense fascination with train sets may not cause stress at home, but can at school.
Quirkiness is particularly challenging when it prevents a child from fitting in.
If it becomes more extreme, it can limit the development of social skills necessary
for healthy peer interaction. Parents are caught on a tightrope of struggling to
nurture individuality while
also encouraging children to integrate.
How parents can help
How can parents best support a child who is just not quite one of the crowd? The
objective shouldn’t be to change a child’s personality or force them to be someone
they aren’t, but rather to
support them in the areas of difficulty that may be causing stress,’ says Dr Bowers.
‘The degree to which any quirky child is unhappy is based on a myriad of things,
not all of which are to do with being quirky.’
Often, children who are a bit ‘different’ are unsure how to make
people like them and fail to understand how sharing, cooperation, or even the right
facial expressions, can get them accepted into a group. If they are rejected, they
can respond by distancing themselves, pushing them deeper into isolation.
‘I encourage parents to take charge when a child shows signs of becoming isolated,’
says Dr Bowers. ‘They need to identify what is contributing to the isolation – is
it stress, anxiety or perhaps social difficulties? Once they understand the cause,
they can begin to provide support to address those areas, while also setting up
opportunities to interact, such as after-school activities.’
Quirkiness isn’t necessarily a problem in itself, but lack of social
skills can be. The girl who chooses to play football rather than with her dolls may
be seen as ‘odd’ by her peers: it depends on her social skills and, to some extent,
her underlying popularity. A popular child may be admired for doing something groundbreaking,
whereas an already unpopular child may be ostracised further.
Teaching children to show their individuality without alienating others is a life
lesson well learned at an early age. To do this, parents need to show them ways to
cope, so they aren’t overwhelmed by the dictates of social convention and are able
mix with others whilst retaining their individuality. Many children suppress their
own personalities just to fit in. This can lead to problems in socialising, forming
relationships and having a
sense of self-identity in adulthood.
Parents should also remain positive and celebrate their child’s unique traits. As
the German philosopher, Nietsche, once said: ‘You have your way. I have my way. As
for the right way, the correct
way, and the only way, it does not exist.’
Quirky or dysfunctional?
Sometimes children who seem ‘different’ may have a condition that requires psychological
help. ‘There’s certainly overlap with certain
psychiatric disorders such as Asperger’s Syndrome,’ explains Dr Bowers. If you are
worried about your child’s behaviour, you should seek a clinical diagnosis and support.
‘When in doubt, check it out,’ advises Dr Bowers.
If you have any concerns at all, consult your GP. See if there are grounds to explore
further. Then an appropriate investigation or referral can be made.
Is your child quirky?
1. When an invitation to a themed costume birthday party arrives, your child:
a. Gets excited and asks you to buy or make a costume.
b. Puts together a costume from what they have in their wardrobe.
c. Says dressing up is stupid and opts to skip the party.
d. Attends the party in a different themed outfit.
2. When the neighbourhood children play in the park together, your child:
a. Joins them.
b. Plays in his or her room.
c. Says games are immature.
d. Goes to the park, but plays alone.
3. For your child, being social generally means:
a. Being with one or two friends.
b. Interacting with a group of friends.
c. Alone time.
d. Being with adults.
4. Dressing for school involves:
a. Wearing whatever’s available.
b. Coordinating an outfit.
c. Creating and styling an unconventional outfit.
d. Throwing tantrums because ‘nothing looks right’.
5. Voicing opinions means:
a. Expressing themselves loudly, insistently and to anyone who will listen.
b. Being reticent.
c. Listening carefully to what others are saying before agreeing with them.
d. Listening and then voicing an opinion.
1) a=4; b=2; c=1; d=3
2) a=4; b=2; c=3; d=1
3) a=3; b=4; c=1; d=2
4) a=2; b=4; c=3; d=1
5) a=2; b=1; c=4; d=3
16 to 20: Your child isn’t quirky, but is keen to fit in and is doing all the right
things to be accepted. Just watch that they don’t allow their own personalities to
be submerged by others.
12 to 15: Your child is on the right side of quirkiness – keen to socialise, but
on their terms. They’re able to manipulate social occasions to their advantage without
losing their individuality.
8 to 14: Your child is quirky and needs some help fitting in. The better your child’s
social skills, the more likely the group will accept any quirkiness.
5 to 7: Your child is a loner by nature, and there is a danger that peers may ostracise
such children. Seek help from teachers and professionals in integrating your child