When called on in class Owen always went on far too long with his answer. The other kids would roll their eyes. Owen didn't understand why they didn't want to pal around with him.
Whenever she worked on a group project, Sondra talked too loud and insisted she was always right. If they could possibly help it, her classmates avoided working with her.
Alexander – for once – was allowed to sit at a cafeteria table with a group of boys who were all good friends. He watched one kid reach over and grab a bunch of French fries off another kid's plate. The boys laughed. Alexander, wanting to join in the fun, helped himself to a couple of fries, too. Alexander was made unwelcome at the table for any further lunch periods.
There have always been these children. They are often intelligent and may well get good grades. But they don't get it. Compared to other children their age they are significantly less adept at reading social cues. Nor do they have the self-awareness as to how they come across to others.
Many such children are now categorized as having Asperger's syndrome, part of what are considered autism spectrum disorders. But the bottom line is that there is a significant group of kids in high school who are noticeably socially awkward who are not only disliked, but often ostracized.
Teens are taught that it is wrong to be mean to kids with obvious disabilities – physically handicapped kids, or teens who are mentally disabled. Some teens still will be cruel to such kids, but the majority curb their behaviour.
But with those kids who are socially out of tune with their peers, other teens do not see it as a skill they lack. They see it as a personality flaw.
Of Owen who goes on too long with his answers, "The kid thinks people are going to be interested in all his dumb stuff. But it's stupid."
Of bossy Sondra, "She is so full of herself."
Of Alexander, "He thinks he's so funny, but he's not. He's a loser."
So what's a parent to do to make sure that their teen is more tolerant of those kids whose behaviour is chronically off key?
You could start with something like:
"There are some kids – it's the way their brains work – who aren't as good at reading social cues. The way they act can seem different, because they see things differently – kind of like coming from another country with a different language and different customs. Their behaviour may bother you. But instead of saying to yourself 'stupid' or 'jerk,' maybe you could say 'different.'
"And by the way, they might have skills that you don't, like knowing all about car models. Maybe you don't care so much about that, but maybe because they do care so much, they can help make better car models."
The above can help, but such statements are not what will make the biggest difference in your teen's tolerance. There are two more important factors.
One is that as a parent – far before the teenage years – you have a choice to be inclusive. For example in sports, having kids play who really aren't that good. It can drive athletic kids, as well as their parents, crazy. Being inclusive means everybody. Even at the expense of optimal fun. Should you invite everybody to your kid's birthday party, even Avery Nescomb, whom your kid hates? Do you draw a line? I'm for inclusion, but it can be tough in practice.
The other is your own behaviour. What do you model in front of your kids? Do you uniformly show respect to others or do you regularly put people down?
"Have you ever noticed that all those pizza-delivery kids are idiots?"
"Your aunt acts like she knows so much. But she doesn't know anything."
Or do you consciously avoid such talk – even though you might think it? It sets a powerful model for your kids – one way or the other.
What is your role in having your own teen be more tolerant of those who seem different from them? It is in practising inclusion. But also it is to the extent that you have shown respect toward others – all others.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books, including I'd Listen to My Parents if They'd Just Shut Up . E-mail him questions at email@example.com.