Social Maladjustment: All Around Us–and A Risk Factor For Mental Illness

My friend Evelyn has potential to be a terminally tedious grandparent. She talks about her grandkids as if we–meaning the world–are merely fortunate that these children have chosen to grace us with their presence. I try to act appropriately grateful.  I have heard about merit scholarships, acceptances to magnet schools, stellar performances on the recorder that would have blown great musical minds away, solos in choir.

Elliott is the baby of them all, and I figured I heard less about him than the rest [there are 7] since Evelyn merely didn’t have time to cover the excellence of all, so he, at 4 years old, got short shrift.

Until Evelyn and I had a heart-to-heart, and I found out I could safely [with many major changes, of course, to maintain my friendship with Grandmother of the Year] include Elliott in my blog on socially incompetent children.

It can look different in preschool–but really not so different. Elliott fights–physically–with the other children in his class, and has been ‘suspended’ (if you call it that in preschool) multiple times, causing no end of grief to his working parents. Although I’m sure there’s nothing deviant about the child, he thinks it’s downright hilarious to peek under girls’ skirts. He’s apologized multiple times–but says he just can’t help it.

And he’s not shy about sharing his opinion of the curriculum. Three times now he’s pronounced, after all the art supplies have been handed out and the project has been explained, that ‘this is dumb!,’ and then overturned the table, with tongue depressors, buttons, beads, googly-eyes, tubs of glue, markers, paintbrushes and paints  each finding a home on the carpet. [And you know how tubs of glue and paint are–they’ll always land upside down.]

Let’s just say he’s not a huge hit in his school–and next year, the administration has firmly informed his parents, he won’t be there.

He’s just a littler version of a young man who was sent to me by a desperate friend at the last moment for a holiday meal, where I grandly shoved my children around so we could accommodate him and make him feel at home.

He stopped my introductions, saying, “I don’t remember names. They don’t matter. Only the inside of a person matters, and I understand that better than anyone. You’ll see.” However, that wasn’t exactly what I saw.

It was a classic Thanksgiving meal.  If I tell you we had turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce you’d think I had nothing to write.  However. . .Bobby said, “What IS this food? Who likes turkey? And this stuff [cranberry sauce] tastes like slime [my son said he had a point]. I can’t eat this. I’d like a steak.”

Well, I wasn’t born yesterday, and no steak would be forthcoming, but he then proceeded to ask for ketchup for his turkey and sour cream for his stuffing. He wanted my younger daughter, my right-hand server, to put the cream right on his place, instead of bringing a bowl of it in, and by the time he’d sent her back three times, I’d put a stop to that, too. [She, already practically on her brother’s lap, with his baby perched on hers, didn’t look like she was ‘feeling the love.’]

He would sing [very loudly, and off-tune] sporadically through the meal to himself, as people were talking, so conversation was prevented. In fact, he seemed unable to converse in that back and forth way that we mean when we say ‘converse.’

Then he got started on a monologue the President. Now, we’re not saints in our family, and we’ve of course complained about the President, too–in the privacy of our homes, on policy matters, when it’s tax time, you know. But here we were treated to a discourse on the composition of President George W. Bush’s face–a topic I’d never really thought much about, in point of fact.

We tried gentle re-direction, but when Bobby clarified for us that Bush’s eyes were so close together he could look through a telescope with both at the same time, my husband, who rarely gets mad, quashed the situation with one heavy-duty fist bang.

We survived the meal and stood by the door, sure that this was as appealing a plea as any to our guests to leave us to lick our wounds. But Bobby stayed firmly seated at the table, humming tunelessly. Today I would have handled this better, but I did owe my (saintly) friend, so there we were.

So my husband, daughter and I maneuvered to clear the table and do the dishes around him, my daughter still not catching my eye. [My older daughter and her family, and son and his family were long-gone, no fools they.]

I know: you don’t need me to tell you. . .here are some socially maladapted people.

But what is hard to keep in mind when dealing with such difficult people, is their vulnerability to suffering. Yes, we may feel like punching them, like pouring sour cream on their laps, like putting Elliott in restraints–but would you believe that people like Elliott and Bobby are actually at high risk for depression?

Susan Spense, Ph.D. is professor of psychology and dean of the Division of Linguistics and Psychology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. Together with her co-authors, she wrote an article, “An examination of the relationship between childhood depression and social competence amongst primary school children,” where she examined 43 primary school children with depression vs a control group of 43 undepressed children.

The depressed were rated with

less adequate social skills performance, received lower ratings of peer popularity, fewer positive nominations from peer sociometry and more negative nominations. Depressed children were much more likely to be rejected or isolated by their peers than were their fearful or control counterparts.

The same holds true for adults.

Chris Segrin is a behavioral scientist who is professor and department head at the University of Arizona Department of Communications and has researched extensively on social skills.  In his article, “Specifying the nature of social skill deficits associated with depression,” he observed one-on-one interactions between his subjects, 67 of whom were depressed.

He found upon observing these interactions that

 depression is associated with a partial social skill deficit, most notable in terms of excessive social anxiety, low motivation to communicate with others, low social expressivity, and diminished behavioral involvement. . .

Of course we’re left with a chicken-and-egg conundrum here–did the social skill deficit leave such negative impressions in the work force, social life, romantic life, etc., that the person felt isolated and depressed? Or was the person tending to depression, and thus had little energy to expend on interactions with others and high social expressivity?

It’s one of those puzzles science will be hard-put to solve, but Segrin suggests a ‘vulnerability model’ in response. The model implies that the social incompetency doesn’t cause depression, but rather arises from stress. People who are ‘vulnerable’ are less likely to seek support during times of strain, which better-socialized people would do. Thus they are set on a downward spiral into depression, due to their social inability to reach out and utilize a social network to prevent a decline.

And I  have plenty of sympathy with people with social skills so poor that they rub others the wrong way. They are lonely, chronically rejected, isolated–and probably can’t fathom why. I work with them in my office to improve their interactions.

But I have decided that if Bobby gets sent my way again for a festive meal–I’m sending my daughter out to friends.

Kennedy E, Spense S, Hensley R.  An examination of the relationship between childhood depression and social competence amongst primary school children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 1989; 30(4):561–573.

Segrin C. Social skills deficits associated with depression. Clinical Psychology Review 2000; 20(3):379–403.

Segrin C. Specifying the nature of social skill deficits associated with depression. Human Communication Research 1992; 19(1):89-123.

“UA expert: Poor social skill, depression possibly linked”


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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