Talking about friendships is a tricky conversation in our house. It doesn’t come without some sort of longing and wondering. Recently, P was lamenting about going to middle school. He is worried about changing rooms for every class with a new teacher in every room and new kids in every class. There are a lot of variables that could go awry with all of those changes. The one bright spot of the rant was when P adds, “I hope I made a friend in middle school.” That made me happy and sad all at once. You know those feelings where you feel hopeful yet disappointed that these conversations still have to take place. I was delighted because I know my boy is resilient and he will continue on the search for that one good friend. Yet, I was sad because we’ve had our fair share of friends come and go.
That got me pondering about the concerned phone calls, emails, and referrals that have come from teachers and therapists over the years. It always started with “P’s mom, do you have a moment I’d like to talk to you about a social skills program we have. We’ve seen P really struggle with making friends, and I think this would be a wonderful resource.” Lord knows, there have been plenty of moments like that as I have answered every single one. P has been learned social skills since he was old enough to sit around the carpet circle with his peers at morning meeting time, calendar time, or social time whatever it was called. P can tell you verbatim What is a friend? How do meet someone new? Why do you say sorry if you hurt your friend’s feelings? Exactly word for word, he will tell you a textbook answer. The one piece to the puzzle that is missing is what do you do once you have a friend? Then P will give you silence. Nothing. His prior knowledge drops off there.
Now, P’s dad and I have really tried to give him real-world practice in using his social skills in those public settings. We were at the pool when he encountered two boys reaching for rocks to plug up on the water sprayers. At first, P was shocked and appalled by the behavior. He didn’t say anything to the boys. He would reach in, grab a rock, and put it right back in the landscaping. The boys were visibly annoyed, yet said nothing to Peter. They would go right back and pick up another rock. This continued until he saw that the water pressure was so great it turned into a geyser lifting the rock right into the air. Now, that was engaging to Peter. He laughed and laughed which caused the two boys to smile and laugh. The boys introduced themselves to each other, and off they went. We watched cautiously amazed as P navigated through the social cues like a seasoned pro. He and the boys played together for the next two hours. For those of you who have kiddos who experienced those struggles with friends and peers, you can relate to that feeling when you see your kiddo engaging and interacting with their peers.
Now, I am realistic in knowing that those two boys were not going to be P’s new best friends. I am also realistic in knowing that P is the type of kid that will be perfectly happy with one or two really good buddies. Right now, his peers at school are binge-watching Netflix series and mastering Fortnite. While P is still engrossed in the world of fantasy and make-believe. He prefers Pokemon, Legos, and Minecraft. It is not out of the ordinary to hear Paw Patrol blaring throughout our home. That is our cue that P needs downtime as he is feeling anxious, stressed, or nervous. I see that these two universes are trying to integrate and mingle, but not get caught on a collision course. I have decided that as much as I want P to find that new friend that will be his tried and true best friend through it all I know that for that happen the friendship needs to form organically.
I have decided the best way I can help P make the most of his social skils and to answer the question What do you do once you found a friend? I need to stop using cliches in references to friends. “Friends like you for you.” That doesn’t help P understand the complexities of friendship that can sometimes turn into a minefield. Most of his neurotypical peers can navigate the friendships with ease and without much thought. P has to put some extra time and thought into making those friendships. I know that it is easier to find friends who have the same interests/hobbies as he does. Minecraft, Pokemon, and Legos all lend nicely to cooperative play that forces each child to take turns, express ideas, and opinions. I will continue to give P opportunities to practice skills in social settings. Last but not least, I will understand that P needs downtime away from the constant work that is building a lasting friendship.
All my best to you,