Perhaps the hardest thing about being the parent of a quirky kid is coming to terms with the possibility that our child’s social interactions may never be “normal.” We want so much for them to have friends they can relate to and bond with over a lifetime, but often our neurologically unique kiddos have trouble initiating appropriate social interactions. They may appear aloof, bossy, demanding, or wildly moody to their neurotypical playmates. When they do finally find a new friend, who is tolerant (or unmindful) of their quirks, they may enthusiastically latch on to the friendship and expect nothing less than absolute friend-fidelity and be devastated if their new buddy has a playdate with someone else.
I’ve had moms call and ask me to have my child “back off” to give their kid some breathing space. How do you tell a nine-year-old boy that his “best” (only) friend is overwhelmed and doesn’t want to play with him anymore? Our kids’ social interactions can be heartbreaking and tricky to navigate, at best.
When my kids were little, playdates were easier to navigate. They were happy to parallel play with others, and I chatted with the host mom, keeping a close look out of the corner of one eye and ready to step in if things got volatile. I knew what to watch out for—Lego projects were a potential trigger for meltdowns or worse. Role-playing with Thomas trains could turn sour when a playmate didn’t follow the invisible script, and wooden cars and tracks might go flying before I ended up carrying my screaming son out of Barnes and Noble and back to the car.
While any playdate can have its ups and downs (children are volatile by nature), you can reduce some of the stressors in your child’s social interactions by understanding what contributes to them and planning accordingly.
Social Milestones & the Importance of Teaching Moments
Empathy—According to the California Department of Education, neurotypical children begin to develop strong empathetic skills before the age of three. They can begin to interpret the behavior and expressions of others to understand, feel, and respond to those feelings. While quirky kids can appear to lack empathy, or be unresponsive to the needs of another, they may, in fact, be overly empathetic and become easily overwhelmed by the experience of interacting with others. This overload can put their social engines in “freeze” mode until the pressure builds and leads to a blown gasket.
- Fend off emotional overload by keeping playdates as short and stress-free as possible. (Your child will take on any stress you may be feeling, so spend a few minutes meditating or deep breathing before you get out of the car).
- Plan for one-to-one interaction, rather than a group play, and closely monitor the play. If your child acts out or speaks rudely with his playmate, have a brief sit-down to discuss how his behavior made his friend feel. Questions like, “Why do you think your friend is crying?” can lead to a teachable moment and help your child develop his empathetic skills.
Regulating Emotions & Impulse Control—All children struggle with expressing their emotions in socially appropriate ways. For quirky kids, whose neurophysiology can interfere with their efforts to censor thoughts and feelings effectively (Neurophysiological Frameworks for Understanding Autism), the challenge is more pronounced and can lead to difficulty in their day-to-day social interactions with peers. Though neurotypical children begin to develop some control over their impulses between 18 months and three-to-four years and become aware of the consequences of their behavior, adjusting their behavior, quirky kids may not develop (or fully develop) the censoring mechanisms that would stop them from acting out in time to avoid a negative consequence. (Psychology Today) They might understand that their behavior is inappropriate, and they make be excessively remorseful after committing some heinous act upon another, but their experience is doubly frustrating for them when they are unable to stop themselves, despite knowing their behavior is inappropriate.
- Practice mirroring appropriate emotional responses with your child, and discuss meltdowns in quiet moments, when your child is calm. Feelings—especially strong, negative ones—can be frightening or overwhelming in the moment, but discussing triggers and calming techniques (like deep breathing) during stress-free times can empower your child and help him become more self-aware when he feels himself becoming upset about something.
- Keep playdates short, and set a timer on your phone that will give a five-minute warning before it’s time to leave. Tell your child beforehand that when the beep goes off, it’s time to go.
- Be consistent to avoid meltdowns. Set the rules, and make sure your child understands them. Then lock them in. Giving in to your child’s tantrum will only add to his feelings of insecurity when his ability to control some situations and not others create self-doubt and frustration.
My kids are teens now, and they have learned to give friends a little breathing room. They get that not everybody likes the same things or has the same needs. They know to use their words when they’re frustrated and not to take it personally when friends aren’t available to hang out. They know that they are different and that not everybody is comfortable with who they are, so they treasure the friends who are okay with their quirks, and they have accepted that occasional loneliness is just part of the human experience—no matter who you are.
Do you have tips on keeping your kid’s social interactions sociable? Share them in the comments!