photo by Jen Little
Your child is healthy, making good grades, and seems happy. But there is that one tiny issue bothering you. Is she fitting in with a group of friends? Does he get chosen quickly when it's time to partner up for a game? Are they accepted socially?
If you don't know what I'm talking about, count your blessings. Your child probably comes home talking about what his friend Jackson said to his friend Lucas, or what she and Madison and Sierra are planning to do on their Friday night sleepover.
Maybe you're not there. Or maybe, in the words of Bobby Hill, you're living in downtown there. Take heart. You have options. There are steps.
Step 1 - Consider your child's perspective of the situation. If she's happy, is it a big deal that she doesn't have four best friends? It's hard not to transfer your own feelings of acceptance or memories of rejection onto your child. Just be careful. They have their own social comfort level, and it could be very different from yours.
Step 2 - Your child is not happy and well-adjusted, and you know because they have told you. Perhaps not in so many words, but maybe you've heard them say things like, "Nobody likes me," or "I have no one to play with." Take it seriously. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics states that "making friends is one of the most important missions of middle childhood - a social skill that will endure throughout their lives." They are telling you they need help. On the other hand (back to step 1), don't push children to make more friends if they're perfectly content with the one or two they have. It can cause anxiety.
Step 3 - Make your own observations and ask for input. You may need to take your lunch hour off and go to your child's school and observe recess. Now please don't park around the corner with your binoculars. It's creepy, and if you came to my school, we would call the police. Just call the principal or go in to the office and tell them you'd like see how your child is interacting with others and ask if there is a good place you could do that. Be very upfront. In fact, talking to your child's teacher is a great place to gain some insight into the situation. When you do get to watch how your child is playing, ask yourself (or the teacher) a couple of questions. First, is there something my child is doing that seems to be driving friends away, perhaps even without their knowledge? For example, being bossy, unwilling to play what others want to play, annoying tendencies, or simply ignoring others. Second, if they seem to be doing everything right socially, are they truly being targeted for ridicule or purposefully left out?
Step 4 - Intervene. You are the parent. Take the reins here for the sake of your child. If they do tend to deter any approaching friends, start there. Make your child aware of what may be the problem and begin coaching your child out of that behavior. For example, "I think you're being a little bit bossy to the other kids and that may be why they are not wanting to play with you. Let's practice playing together. And this time, we'll take turns making decisions about what we're going to play and how we're going to play it." If your child is inherently shy, our pediatrician recommends that you create the opportunities for friendships. You may need to call a code red: operation friendships at your house. Host the Bakugan trading party or the Hannah Montana movie night. Enroll them in a sport they like, Scouts, drama, anything they can be proud of. Be the parent who brings the iguana to the park for an impromptu show-and-tell (better you than me), who has 10 different shades of nail polish for spa night, or who sends your child to school with something to pass out for the class (possibilities are endless - pecans from your backyard, cheap pencil-top erasers, buffalo nickels, etc.). It may sound gratuitous, but this is your child we're talking about. And they need friends. Pull out the stops.
Our pediatrician was a wonderful resource; I'm sure yours would be also. We often don't think of the doctor as having anything to contribute to this conversation; but on the contrary, ours is very adept at considering all social issues as part of the child as a whole. And the success of the whole child is our common goal.
For help with these issues in special needs children, visit these tips from the Dallas Autism & Parenting Examiner. Also, the Irving Stay-at-Home Moms Examiner just published a great article on hosting playdates.