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Our seven year old boy is a smart kid, loves to explain things, joke around, etc. However, when someone pays him a compliment, or asks him an unexpected question, he freezes up and doesn't know how to respond. Sometimes responds with an unrelated answer, e.g.

"Hey man how's it going?"

His response: "Yeah"

We've been working on politeness, saying "thank you", and so on, but I wonder if he is experiencing Alexithymia (no words for feelings.) I think he just wants to pass as "being shy" so he doesn't have to struggle with these kinds of interactions, but we want him to understand the importance of manners and communication. Any advice or recommended reading on the subject?

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    Alextihymia is a rather new classification, is complicated, and there's no shortage of debate around its diagnosis. If you think your child may have it, you can start by discussing this with your child's Primary Care Provider. You might have better luck with this question on a sister site, Psychology & Neuroscience. There are interventions for people with Alexithymia, so it's well worth the effort of looking into it.
    – anongoodnurse
    Jan 4 at 6:21
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    I second the comment by @anongoodnurse (an expert). Adding more (from a non-expert). See: Goerlich KS. The Multifaceted Nature of Alexithymia - A Neuroscientific Perspective. Front Psychol. 2018;9:1614. Published 2018 Aug 29. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01614. It discusses two tests (without an apparent clear consensus re single test): TAS-20 & BVAQ. So diagnosis of A is not simple. Discuss this with a good pediatrician. They might recommend seeing a psychologist, but this is just a guess - leave the diagnosis up to the PCP. Jan 4 at 15:56
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    @TimurShtatland - Thanks for the link. It's further complicated by the fact that in some cases, imaging studies are necessary to the diagnosis! And the range, and subtypes... it's so not straightforward! (I've added this somewhat less scary link; not a criticism, because it is associated with depression and suicidality, but I'd like the OP to be less frightened.)
    – anongoodnurse
    Jan 4 at 16:31
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    Oh, @JacobIRR - I forgot to mention "emotional literacy" or "emotional vocabulary". If you search the site for these phrases, you'll get an idea of how important it is to incorporate feeling words into your son's vocabulary.
    – anongoodnurse
    Jan 4 at 17:32

2 Answers 2

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How is it going? is a very difficult question, and I'm completely unsurprised that a 7 year old struggles with it. It can mean a lot of different things depending on the context and the relationship between questioneer and questionee. It could be just a greeting, and as such still has a lot of potential response phrases with varied applicability. It could be a prompt to your son to report on recent happenings that feel meaningful to him. It could be a request to reflect on his overall emotional state, which definitely can take some thinking!

Responding to compliments also is a challenging task, even for many adults. You need to correctly identify the complement as such (and disambiguate it from general statements of fact, sarcasm, etc); figure out whether a reciprocal compliment is appropriate; hit the right level of humility in your response, etc.

As such, I think it is a very far-fetched to suspect a diagonasable condition based on difficulties with such interactions.

Getting better with these is, by the way, also something you can help your son with. If he gets overwhelmed by a hard question, substitute an easier one that prompts an appropriate answer to the original one. So maybe move from How is it going? to Are you still excited over seeing the monkeys? (which just happened or is about to happen). That will allow your son to learn how to respond from examples that actually apply to him, which will be easier than just from observing others. It's perfectly fine to only do this occasionally - learning can still happen, and the kind of mild awkwardness you describe isn't a problem per se, in particular for a 7 year old.

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  • Good points and fair enough, but OP can't control or paraphrase all the someones who ask questions. So I'm not quite sure this answers the question.
    – anongoodnurse
    Jan 4 at 21:42
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    @anongoodnurse The question is asking for advice regarding a particular concern of the parent, and my main point is that there doesnt seem to be much to worry about (based on the examples given).
    – Arno
    Jan 5 at 10:43
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Sometimes having a diagnosis provides the key, and sometimes it's at least as useful to focus on what the difficulty with functioning is, and then figuring out how to help so it's not so difficult. I will take the latter approach with my answer.

I remember when my children were in kindergarten, one of the topics in the curriculum was feelings -- acknowledging, recognizing and naming them. That suggests to me that children don't always find this a breeze. Also note that my spouse is pretty awkward socially but is very smart, and I've noticed that that combination is not unusual. And as my mother used to say, "You can't have everything and curly hair too." That's my paragraph on reassurance.

I have some suggestions for the what to do about it.

  1. It sounds like you've made some good observations about what questions cause difficulty. So, you could read What Do You Say, Dear? by Joslin together, and then (again, together) gradually add some pages (based on your observations), such as: What do you say when someone asks you, "How's it going?", and then brainstorm possible formulaic responses, e.g. "Good. You?" If your child has trouble proposing possible responses, you could provide several options for him to choose from, to add to the book.

  2. When your child gets a little stuck in conversations, when you are around, you can assist, e.g.

(a) Let's say the question is "Are you tired of Zoom for school?", and you happen to know that your child IS tired of Zoom, or actually likes Zoom, you could turn to your child, and ask a confirmation question, e.g. "You're pretty tired of Zoom, right?" or "You actually kind of like Zoom, right?"

(b) Repeat the question, rewording it as needed.

(c) Or you could provide two or three possible options, e.g., "Are you tired of doing school over Zoom, or do you like doing school over Zoom?"

The reason a, b and c can be helpful is that your child is more accustomed to responding to you than to others that he doesn't know well. Also, he is likely to be more relaxed and less anxious when responding to a question from you.

  1. Roleplay with favorite stuffed animals.

  2. Make some simple Readers Theatre scripts that you can read and act out together. I like to make these with quarter-sheets, stapled down one side, with text on one side of the paper only. This makes a little booklet that it's easy to carry around as you're acting things out.

  3. Model sharing feelings of awkwardness when your child is observing you interacting with others, and tell someone close to you, in your son's hearing, that you felt awkward in a certain situation, and weren't sure what to say. This could be in person or over the phone. Make sure you pretend that you're not aware he's listening or might be listening. (This is a good trick for sneaking in some positive feedback about the child, too!)

If a child freezes up and then starts feeling anxious about freezing up, that can make things so much worse. So, the idea is to normalize the feeling, to help him relax about it.

If you decide to discuss your concern with a doctor or therapist, I suggest you initiate the conversation out of your child's hearing. You could perhaps use the patient portal, email or phone call initially. What I did, for our initial evaluation for Tourette Syndrome was, I had my spouse come along and play with my son in the waiting room while I had a short initial conversation with the pediatrician. I asked the receptionist beforehand if we could set it up that way. This was quite helpful. It's so helpful when we as parents can project a low-anxiety attitude towards our child, so as not to amplify any concerns the child may be having about himself.

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