The school social peer group can provide a hugely unforgiving context. Between the ages of 11-14 this construct is at its peak. Young people are starting to negotiate the complex transition from their identity as a child to their identity as an adult. In primary school children are much more adult-centric in their identity. They want to get things right for their parents and teachers. With puberty and the shift to secondary school this necessarily changes to a much more peer-centric identity.
Some young people are well equipped for this change when they have enough internal resilience or social ability to manage this new world view. Often the ‘popular’ children shine at this new challenge. Other children can see this is the case, but do not understand it. The popular children are often loud, can be cruel to peers, are skilled at pushing boundaries and creating positive dialogue with their teachers.
It can be a highly challenging time for other personalities who are not valued by peers in this peak time for the perceived importance of social success. These are often the ‘odd’ or ‘quiet’ children, or the children who seem to be engaging in bizarre behaviour which is not aggressive but it is considered to be unusual. Such children often make comments which are outside the social norm of the current dialogue.
What these children often learn is that their contribution is not valued and their contribution creates the unpleasant, ‘awkward’ feeling of being excluded from current accepted social dialogue. If this is a repeated experience it can have a lasting impact on these individuals which continues into their adult lives.
I recently finished working with a young man, age 16 who was finishing school. He communicated his fury at his school and his peers and even now struggles to feel that his contributions would be valued by others. It took me knowing this young man for six months before I began to realise how intelligent he was in certain ways. His particular intelligence would not be detected in academic tests. He was also funny, thoughtful and able to understand himself in ways that were highly emotionally intelligent. If I described to any of his peers or teachers a boy who was intelligent, funny, thoughtful and self-aware, however, I believe they would never have thought of the young man I am referring to.
We are aware of the quote that there is a thin line between genius and insanity. This could be considered in many ways. It is not always, however, the person who is able to be most ordinary and able to fit in, who will find the most novel thought processes and ideas. It is through diversity of thinking that innovative progress is enabled.
There is an important developmental task in this 11-14 age which is working out how you fit in and how to manage. This stage brings some understandable and necessary emotional upset. It seems important to bear in mind, however, that there are some individuals who are so outside the developmental “norm” that responses to them can have a huge potential for detrimental impact on their development. This is because they experience that one of their most useful individual qualities when shown engages negative reinforcement from those around them. This leaves the young person to doubt the value of what they have to offer.
So when the ‘odd’ kid comes to tell you something that just baffles you, if you attempt to engage with his thinking and understand what he is saying you may find more sense than you would initially expect.