Watching Our Little One Learn About Friendship

“We didn’t realize we were making memories, we just knew we were having fun.”

– Winnie the Pooh

On a recent Friday evening, my hubby and I were watching T play at our local McDonald’s PlaySpace; it’s our weekly weekend ritual. T ran around in his usual excited way, making loud dinosaur roars. After a few minutes, he came out of the massive structure and said, “No one wants to play with me!”

I encouraged T to go back and ask the kids, who were older, to play with him. T tried to no avail, but then another girl started to play with him. They had a lot of fun running around, until the girl got very excited, which then irritated T and he ended up slapping her on the arm. We asked him to apologize, which then caused a tantrum, so we went home.

On the drive back home, we talked about what happened. I told T the girl was just trying to play with him and that next time, he should use his words to tell a kid to step back, instead of slapping them.

Friendship is something I think about often. Research and anecdotal data consistently shows that kids with FASD – of which T has a prognosis of – often have a hard time making and keeping friends. Common reasons include a lack of understanding of social cues and behaviour or dysmaturity, when one behaves at a less mature level than their peers.

I find it very sad when I read the stories on our online group of other parents who talk about how their children’s friends outgrow them or how they get bullied. Having had a few, thankfully not many, bullies as a student, I think about preparing T to respond to and to be resilient about potential bullying situations.

When I observe T and how he interacts with children, including his seven-year-old cousin, the common observation I make is that T has a challenge with regulating his emotions. I can see how social issues can arise and how his behaviour can alienate other children, despite good intentions.

One evening last summer, while we were playing in the park after dinner, a group of kids ages 9-10, asked T if he wanted to race with them. T got so excited and revved up from 0 to 60 within seconds. He ran to get his tricycle and charged past the starting line, while the kids were still gathered there on their bikes. He was so excited that he ended up just cycling on his own, moving ever so quickly, rather than playing together with the other kids.

In the grand scheme, no biggie. It was actually quite adorable to watch, but the kids ended up just playing without T, who couldn’t calm down from his excitement.

As a parent, the instinct is often to want to solve your child’s problems for them – as a parent should. In the case of friendship, my hubby and I think that the best thing we can do as T’s parents is to help guide and coach T and to help him foster the skills and intuition to navigate a social situation, without us holding his hand. For example, we were certainly not going to ask the other kids to play with him at the PlaySpace. That is something T has to learn to do on his own.

And he will learn.

As I’ve written many times, T has so many incredible strengths. Among them is his charming, funny and friendly personality. Once you get to know him, he will win you over. We are working with him – with thanks to amazing expert supports – to help him learn how to regulate his emotions, to control his response to situations when he is overwhelmed or over excited, and to vocalize his feelings.

It’s a work in progress, not just for T but for my hubby and I, as his parents.

And the wonderful thing about young children is that they often see the good in others and enjoy and live in the moment. They’ll generally make any situation into one of play.

One thing I am better at now is enjoying the moment. As a parent of a child with special needs, you are often on edge all the time when you are in a public setting – anticipating or responding to a social situation caused by your child’s behaviour.

I often read about parents who avoid going out in public to avoid unpleasant situations. This is not an option for us, because the only way T will learn about social behaviour is to be in social situations.

And this kid has come such a long way. Let me also say that when things go well, they go really well and it just fills my heart with unadulterated joy.

T has developed a great bond with a boy his age – let’s call him J – at our weekly McDonald’s PlaySpace outings. It is a treat watching them play together and I think to myself that T and J found kindred spirits in each other. Right before Christmas, J invited T to his 5th birthday party. Unfortunately, we were not able to attend, because we were out of town for Christmas. Sadly, we haven’t seen J since December and have a gift card we’re waiting to give him. If we see J again, I will ask his mom about having regular weekend play dates.

Late last summer, on one of our evening walks, T and I saw a little boy coming down the street on a big toy jeep that was being remote controlled by his grandmother, walking next to him. T’s eyes grew big real quick and he ran towards the jeep. This was the third time that week that we had seen them.

The grandmother offered me, in Mandarin, to let T go in the jeep with her grandson. The previous two times she offered, I had said no. I didn’t want T to get overly excited and end up either accidentally hitting the little boy, two years younger, or damaging the toy. But this time, I said yes.

I knelt down on one knee and asked T to look at me in the eyes as I succinctly explained – because you only ever have a few seconds of his attention, before his mind wanders elsewhere – that he is going to sit as the passenger and he is not going to take over the steering wheel from the little boy.

For the next hour, I watched T and the boy being driven around the pavement area near the park by the grandmother. It was so heart filling hearing the two boys’ loud hearty laughter and to see the uncontrollable wide smile on T’s face.

These are the moments that I bottle up in my mind and heart as a reminder that although every step of the journey forward will have social challenges, with focus, work and a determination to enjoy the moment, things will be ok.

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