In my frequent conversations with parents of children with challenging behaviors, the most heartbreaking stories emerge when a parent talks about a child’s constant struggles with making and keeping friends. A parent will tell me they witness their child desperately wanting to have friends and be included in social activities, only to be invited to the friend’s house and then behave in a way that ensures they’ll never be invited over again. As their kids get older, friendships sometimes begin with a promising start, only to completely crumble due to their child’s inability to “be kind” or “compromise” or “respond appropriately” in different situations. This pattern repeats itself over and over again, and the parents feel helpless in knowing what they can do to stop it.
I understand this heartache intimately.
A few months ago, before social-distancing and quarantine meant an end to friend visits for a while, my 11-year-old daughter asked if we could invite a classmate from school over to play. Knowing that she’s been eager to have a friend over, with infrequent opportunities to do so, I agreed and set it up with this classmate’s mom. Before the friend arrived, my daughter and I talked about how to be a good host to visitors, knowing this isn’t something she understands intuitively, and needs frequent reminders. She enthusiastically provided her own ideas on what this might look like, and how she would make her friend feel welcome.
She could hardly contain her excitement.
Despite all of this, the moment her friend arrived (right on time and excited to play), she ran and hid behind a couch. I tried to get her to come out from her hiding spot, but she stayed there, growling like a dog and hissing like a cat. When I whispered to her quietly that her friend would need to leave if she wasn’t going to come out and play, she started saying, loud enough to be sure her friend heard, things like, “Well she’s always mean to me and never wants to play what I want to play.” And, “She’s super bossy and I don’t know if I really even like her.” All of this in response to a friend she begged me for days to invite over, and she’d seemingly ruined the opportunity in a matter of a few minutes.
Beyond my immediate reactions of embarrassment and frustration, what I’m really left with is heartbreak for her in these types of moments (and there are plenty of them), knowing that the impact of her actions, and how they affect a blossoming friendship she so desperately craves, is completely lost on her. Knowing that she is extremely social, and wants nothing more than to have true friends like her older “neurotypical” brother, but watching her struggle with the basics of how to be a friend — even with patient coaching and encouragement in advance — is unbelievably sad for me as her mom.
While it’s certainly true that the social complexities any child faces growing up will deliver a measure of heart-breaking moments, this is different. This is a profound, lingering heartbreak that runs deep because it’s about more than just the situation at hand— the most recent drama with the friend at school or the hurt feelings from something uttered on the playground. This heartbreak is about witnessing, repeatedly, the growing pains that come with having a child whose brain works differently, the sort of difference that renders establishing and maintaining successful, authentic friendships incredibly challenging.
I hear different versions of this heart-breaking story from nearly every parent I work with:
It might be the high schooler who engages in risky behavior with a new peer group they want to impress, but lacks a clear understanding of the consequences of their actions.
The way in which this same high schooler has a “falling out” with a new friend each week, but can’t identify why this keeps happening, let alone figure out how to change the pattern.
It might be a young adult who isolates in their room all day, reducing their social interactions to online “friends,” but has only minimal understanding of the wide-reaching ramifications of social media interactions with “friends” who are complete strangers.
Or maybe it’s a teen who cannot pick up on social cues, and so texts and calls a friend repeatedly to the point of alienating themselves, due to being seen as “annoying” or “too much.”
Or the middle schooler who is seen as “immature,” playing too rough on the playground, talking about toys and movies intended for much younger children, dominating conversations without self-awareness, alienating herself by talking too loudly and too frequently.
The ten-year-old that is acting “silly” in a desperate attempt to fit in and be funny, but is seen by classmates as the kid who “ruins everything.”
And the twelve-year-old who still requires nearly constant adult supervision to be safe and doesn’t understand why he can’t ride down to the park by himself, like all the other 12-year-olds in the neighborhood.
So, what does this all have to do with the way in which our child’s brain works differently? Well, everything, really. The ability to form and maintain relationships requires many cognitive skills that our children struggle with. Poor impulse control (I want, so I grab or steal; That’s mine, so I take without asking; He’s in my way, so I push to get him out of my way), inability to think abstractly (a struggle to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” pick up on the complex context of a situation or read social cues) or inability to see consequences of actions, are just a few examples of skills that need to be solidly in place to successfully navigate the complexities of friendship.
Dysmaturity — where a gap exists between the developmental age and the chronological age of an individual — is a primary characteristic of neurobehavioral conditions and is present with all children who have challenging behaviors to one degree or another. Because of its universal application, I believe it is foundational to our understanding of individuals with this diagnosis, setting the stage for our understanding of their other brain differences that follow. I often begin processing a situation that has occurred with a child by asking the parent, “How old is he (or she) developmentally?” or “What age does this remind you of?” Asking these simple questions lays the foundation and brings the dysmaturity to the forefront. It’s often not until we truly begin to dissect specific situations parents have encountered with their child that the full impact of dysmaturity on their child’s life comes into full focus.
Once this awareness is present, other understandable, tough questions come next:
If my child is half their age developmentally, what does this mean for their future?
What does this mean for my future, as their parent?
Will my child ever be able to find a place or community where they “fit in?"
Will they ever “catch up,” or does the developmental gap remain?
It can be difficult to remain in the moment as a parent when such heavy, difficult questions about the present and future remain unanswered. But there are things we can do as parents, in the present moment, to work within, rather than against, the limitations of dysmaturity.
Circle back after the friend has left, and talk to our child about how the time with their friend went from their perspective and what we observed from ours.
Help make the abstract concrete by letting our child know in loving, compassionate ways how their behavior and words might have been perceived by their friend.
Finding places and activities where there are mixed age groups, so that your child can make friends with kids who are closer to their social and emotional age.
Work on your personal process of acceptance, meaning understanding that this is a symptom of your child’s brain-based disability that requires understanding and accommodations (vs lecturing, consequences, and shaming).
Where neurobehavioral conditions are concerned, there is an ever-so-slow maturation process, one that sometimes moves so glacially we don’t even believe it’s happening. And then, every once in a while, it’s as if the needle shifts seismically, in a way that shows real progress. We get that glimpse of our child’s ability to think of a friend before themselves. Or our child comes to us when they’re upset by a friend's comment, instead of reacting impulsively, in word or action, towards the friend. Another reminder that they are not acting immaturely, they are actually a younger age developmentally.
As always, success hinges, not only on understanding this, but internalizing and practicing responses that arise from a neurobehavioral, brain-based perspective.
Eileen Devine, LCSW works in Portland, OR as a therapist and coach supporting parents of children with special needs. She is also a consultant for families impacted by FASD, PANS/PANDAS and other neurobehavioral conditions through her private practice, working with families nationally and internationally. She lives with her husband and two amazing kids, one of whom happens to live with FASD. For more information, visit eileendevine.com.