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'Why Can't We Be Friends?' - ​​The Cognitive Skills Your Child Needs for Successful Relationships...and How to Build Them

A young boy with a tie points to a drawing of the brain

Every month inside The Resilience Room Community, parents of kids living with various neurobehavioral conditions come together to give and receive support, ask questions, and develop a deeper understanding of their children. One of the most common topics we discuss is the continual challenge their children experience maintaining successful interpersonal relationships, whether it be with siblings, classmates, neighborhood friends, cousins, or even the parents themselves. 

Why is this a nearly universal struggle for kids who live with brain-based conditions? The answer (in theory) is simple. It's a brain thing; meaning that being in a reciprocal relationship with another person requires specific cognitive skills — ones that kids and teens with brain-based differences frequently struggle with or lag behind on. 

As a parent who desperately wants your child to have meaningful relationships, it can be easy to let your fear for their future take over. You might attempt to “will'' your child to be a good friend, by pleading with them, punishing them, or even shaming them. It may seem like they “self-sabotage” every relationship that seems to hold potential, leaving you frustrated and exasperated about why this always seems to be the pattern. So, you lecture them, in the hopes of convincing them to behave differently. While I understand this reaction (you are human, after all!), these attempts at changing their behavior are not a good use of your time or energy, because they do not address the root cause of the failed relationship.

The key to supporting kids and teens with neurobehavioral conditions in developing life-giving and sustained relationships is to identify the lagging skills that may be getting in their way, so that your child can be supported in building those specific skills over time.

Let’s take a closer look at some common cognitive skills involved in an aspect of life many of us take for granted — developing and maintaining successful relationships — so you can begin to identify some of the root causes of this challenge for your child or teen. While this is not an exhaustive list, it includes what I have come to recognize as the most prominent and essential. 

Social and Emotional Cognitive Skills

Social and emotional cognitive skills are an essential set of skills required to connect with others. If your child struggles with this skill set, these are some of the behaviors you might see, indicating the need for greater understanding and support in this cognitive skill set:

  • Their behavior is immature in comparison to chronologically-aged peers, and their style/type of play or interests are more aligned with younger-aged peers.

  • They have difficulty starting conversations with peers, or engaging with groups of peers appropriately.

  • They may seek attention in inappropriate ways, and do not have awareness of how they are coming across or being perceived by others.

  • They do not understand how their behavior affects other people, even in cases where the impact of their behavior is obvious to everyone around them.

  • They are unable to empathize with others or put themselves “in someone else’s shoes,” including being unable to appreciate or acknowledge others’ perspectives or points of view.

  • They have difficulty accurately interpreting nonverbal social cues (facial expression, tone of voice, body language) and social nuance.

Self-Regulation Skills

Self-regulation refers to the ability to control your behavior and manage your thoughts and emotions in appropriate ways. When someone is unable to consistently manage their emotions in appropriate ways, it can present challenges for those who are in relationship with them. These are some of the specific behaviors you might see that indicate a need for greater understanding and support in this cognitive skill set:

  • They may experience difficulty managing emotional response to frustration, making it impossible for them to “be reasonable” when frustrated.

  • They may not have the ability to manage irritability, annoyance or disappointment in age-appropriate ways.

  • They may be impulsive in their words and actions, leading to hurt feelings and misunderstandings.

Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is the brain’s ability to appropriately adjust one’s behavior according to new, changing, or unplanned events within a given environment. These are some of the specific behaviors you might see that indicate a need for greater understanding and support in this cognitive skill set:

  • Your child may have great difficulty with changes in plans or rules, and cannot “go with the flow.”

  • They may not be able to see the “gray” in a situation (including unspoken context clues), and they can only see situations in black and white.

  • They may experience difficulty with ambiguity, uncertainty, or unpredictability.

  • They may have inaccurate or inflexible interpretations of others’ behaviors, for example “everyone is out to get me” or “nobody likes me” or “they always blame me.”

  • They may be unable to shift away from the original plan and idea.

  • They often have difficulty “letting go” in an argument.

Helping Build Cognitive Skills Over Time

Let’s be clear: The primary reason your child struggles to maintain successful relationships in their life is that they experience lagging cognitive skills — “it’s a brain thing,” as I often say — and not "a character thing" (meaning they are not simply a selfish, ungrateful person). That means that you can help them be more successful in this area of their life, by supporting them in the specific cognitive skills that are making life so difficult.

This is really hopeful news for you, as a parent.

However, when it comes to skill-building, the reality is that it takes time and frequent re-teaching, happening in bits and pieces, through moments of connection over time. It truly is a marathon, not a sprint. With that in mind, here are some resources to help ensure you have the resilience needed to support your child in this way — over the long-haul — and to assist you in rethinking your approach to this common challenge. 

The Resilience Room Community is an easy and affordable way to receive support inside of a community that can brainstorm challenges with you, and provide you with support when you need it.

You can watch a free workshop introducing the Brain First Parenting approach, providing a solid foundation to this important way of seeing and supporting your child or teen.

Some parents prefer or need more intensive one-to-one coaching support in order to deepen their understanding of their child's unique neurobiology, and how to parent them differently with this in mind. 

You can read a blog post outlining the key questions that lead to effective accommodations for helping your child or teen settle in their environment and build their lagging cognitive skills.

There is always the chance to dive deep into the Brain First Parenting approach at your own pace, with the Brain First Parenting self-guided on-line course.

And finally, there’s also this blog post, which covers a process I call “circling back,” an essential concept when working with your child to help build their cognitive skills or to appreciate and integrate your family’s deeply-held values and beliefs.


Eileen Devine 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


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