M, like a lot of kids with ADHD, has a great deal of difficulty reading social cues. Since humans are essentially pack animals, we use this information to guide our interactions with others.
So for kids like M, who don’t seem to notice facial expressions or body language, social interactions can often be challenging. They are the kids who seem to be a step behind the other kids in class and take a joke too far or laugh just a bit longer than the other kids. We have seen people visibly edging away from him, as M continues to chatter on and crowd their personal space. He probably does notice some of the reaction, but doesn’t know how to process the information in order to adjust his behaviour.
The fact that M has a temper and gets easily frustrated doesn’t help him socially. Last year, as part of our on-going of efforts to help him better manage his behaviour, we hired one of his drama teachers to come in and work with him one-on-one. In addition to teaching drama, she also works with adults and children who have anger managment issues. He had been taking drama classes on the weekends and during the summer for a couple of years and had developed a real rapport with her. At the time, M was going through a particularly difficult period at school and positve encouragement was in short supply. So it was a bonus that she seemed to understand M and genuinely wanted him to succeed.
One of the things she worked on with M was helping him to read body language. One of the cues she explained was smiling: if you aren’t smiling, people won’t want to approach you. Interestingly, different types of smiles send different types of signals to other people. A closed smile is seen by others as mistrustful. However, an open smile – showing your teeth and gums – is seen as being “welcoming” and “friendly.” Apparently there are over 50 different types of smiles!
In order to demonstrate to M that an open-mouth smile works, I decided that I would try smiling more myself.
I am not a natural smiler – people often think I am upset or angry, when I am just standing around daydreaming. It isn’t that I never smiled. But I tended not to show my teeth. Not surprisingly, people tended not to smile back.
Part of the reason I didn’t smile with my mouth open very much is that I had a major overbite as a kid – Bucky the Beaver had nothing on me. I wore braces for years and like most teenagers with a mouth full of metal, I rarely smiled. Certainly not withe my mouth open. Plus, I had lost a front tooth in an unfortunate accident on my younger brother’s brand-new banana bike. I didn’t much care for having my picture taken as a teenager/young adult, but when I was captured on film, I didn’t smile, except maybe to tilt my lips up slightly at the corners.
I was reassured to read recently that as a young woman, Queen Elizabeth did not consider herself to be a smiley person. Given her job requires she spend a lot of time mixing with the masses, I expect she has had to learn to smile. Plus she has had many years of practice.
So I started smiling – pearly whites on full blast – at everyone I met. In the elevator, on the bus, in the grocery store. No matter how grumpy they looked, I smiled. Even if we didn’t made eye contact, I smiled in their general direction.
For the first few weeks, it was a conscious effort – I had to continually remind myself to open my mouth and curve my lips upward. Since it wasn’t a natural action, I would sometimes practice in the mirror in the elevators. While I made sure I was alone, I bet I looked pretty funny on the security cameras.
I wasn’t surprised that people smiled back. Not everyone, but many. Smiling is pretty contagious – most of us smile when someone smiles at us. What surprised me was that after a few months, smiling became second nature to me. I didn’t need to give my self a mental nudge to do it and I would often find myself smiling, even if I was alone.
But the biggest surprise was that by smiling a lot more, I began to be a happier person. I wasn’t unhappy before, but I began to feel lighter. Little things didn’t bother me as much. Of course, there are exceptions to this – smiling doesn’t make you immune to a bad day. But it has certainly helped me have many more better days.
Apparently the positive effects of smiling on mental health have been demonstrated by scientific studies. I didn’t know this when I started. I simply wanted to be a good example for M.
The sessions with his drama teacher didn’t have a sigificant impact on M’s ability to get along with others. I am optimistic he will learn and that his smile will be part of his tool kit. As I have discovered, the smiling’s biggest impact is on how you start to see the world. Once you start smiling – using both your teeth and your eyes – it is really hard to stop. And it feels so good, why would you want to?