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Help Build Friendships in 92 Steps

friendships in special needsI was on Twitter with Robert Rummel-Hudson and we got into a short (obviously) conversation about our kids and their friends (or lack of) and how the kids’ special needs separate them from everyone else in the world while navigating friendships. My kids have never been completely on their own, naturally building friendships like I witness other kids. Call it hovering, call it controlling, call it whatever you like, but my kids have needed assistance building their small circle of friends. I wrote 92 steps in the title because this aspect of raising a kid with difference takes a lot of effort and it feels like a lot of steps to follow through.

When my son was three, a preschool teacher mentioned he might need a little help making friends, so she encouraged me taking an active part in helping him by reaching out to the mom of a child in the class. She explained the child, J, was especially compassionate and patient towards ours son.  J didn’t seem to care that he was behind developmentally in some areas and he was extra sensitive in a good way. J was extremely bright and serious their friendship provided an opportunity for J to play differently than his usual. In short, our son was also a good friend to J — it wasn’t a one way street. They filled a need for each other.

I didn’t realize it until I started thinking about this post that the preschool teacher sent me on a path of how to help my son and subsequently, my daughter, build friendships. When that teacher encouraged me to reach out to J’s mom, I was able to gain an appreciation for how to approach a parent about a potential friendship between their child and one of mine in a fairly safe way – I mean it was preschool; it was going to be hard to screw that up, right?  J’s mom was welcoming when I explained that I’d like to get the boys together — and I was pretty open about how hard it had been for us in the friendship department. Even through my son’s dialysis and kidney transplant at ages 7 & 8, J was in his life even though we moved school districts and our paths didn’t cross day-to-day. They don’t see each other anymore, but that friendship was really important to our son still talks fondly about J.

The same can be said for a recent friendship my daughter has developed. She knew this girl in preschool and through 3rd grade and honestly I could never picture them close friends. Goes to show me, because once I opened up the line to each other by calling and inviting her over several times, they were nearly inseparable.

Getting in the middle of helping your kid build friendships feels invasive. It feels unnatural. Well, it does to me. It’s hard to expose your kid. It’s hard to tell people their challenges. But for my kids, it’s been worth it. Here’s the tips I have about helping the kids…

  • I keep an ear out for who the kids might think are friendly
  • I let their teachers know we’re looking to connect the kids with new friends so if they notice kids who my kids naturally are drawn to, to please let me know. Teachers are the best resource for figuring out which kids may be a good fit for friendships with my kids.
  • I call and make the big ask…can our kids get together (or play, depending on age)? Look, I KNOW this is a hassle, but it gets easier, I promise.
  • If the parent is receptive (teachers may know which parents are), I try to let them know generally the kids issues, in case their kid has a question about an interaction (I realize the older the kids get, the more this won’t happen.)
  • Know that not everyone you call will be receptive. But keep trying.
  • I’m transparent with my kids. I get their permission to call the parents of other kids and discuss issues (meds, behavior issues, idiosyncrasies) if needed.
  • I try to host the first few hang outs so I can help my kids navigate something with their peers if they need help.

This is all so hard to do because with everything else we have to do like tutoring, appointments, extra time for homework than the average kid. Plus it feels overwhelming to manage one or two more people in our lives. But when we’ve done it we’ve been so happy we did because it didn’t take long until we were helping our kids call their (new) friends and inviting them over by themselves; and finally they are doing it on their own. Their circle of friends is small, but it’s a couple of strong circles.

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