Guest Blogs

All My Daughter Wanted Was a “Normal” Friend

Do our children’s special needs — attention deficit, learning disabilities, and/or comorbidities — prevent them from making and keeping ‘neurotypical,’ same-age friends?

Sheryl Crow has been hanging out in my brain an awful lot lately, singing these lyrics, personalized for my daughter, Natalie, and me:

God, I feel like hell tonight
Tears of rage I cannot fight
I’d be the last to help you understand
Are you strong enough to be [Nat’s friend]?

She took up residence the day I blew up at Lydia’s mom, explaining (OK, exploding about) how her daughter bowed to peer pressure and dumped my Natalie, her former friend.

At first the singer was a welcome guest, a comfort. But I’m starting to get damned tired of her and the reason she’s here.

I have been mad as hell at Lydia, who I know is a 9-year-old girl just like my daughter, for not remaining loyal to Natalie, her former friend who carries around such baggage as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities (LD), anxiety, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, some of many of the issues life handed her before we adopted her.

The rational part of me knows that it would be hard — really hard, at times — to be Natalie’s friend. How could I expect any 9-year-old to have the strength, the maturity, and the desire to meet the challenge?

What’s so hard about being Natalie’s friend? Social immaturity is part and parcel of her ADHD. She acts like, plays like, and has the interests of a younger child. How many “neurotypical,” same-age peers would find that appealing? During the heyday of their friendship, Lydia reveled in her role as Natalie’s mentor. She told her what to wear and introduced her to age-appropriate pop culture (namely Justin Bieber). The degree of control she had over Natalie’s thoughts, opinions, and activities must have felt pretty good to her. So what if she sometimes treated Nat more like a pet project than a peer? Nat ate up every moment of their time together.

For a long time, Lyd forgave Natalie’s atypical behaviors. There was the huge tantrum at Sally’s Beauty Supply — while shopping for products to use for their next game of hair salon, Nat fell to the floor, kicking and screaming like a toddler when she couldn’t deal with the overwhelming thought of choosing just one or two things from a store full of treasures. Then there is Nat’s autistic-like, whole-body rocking back and forth, back and forth, which she needs to fall asleep each night. The violence of the movement is startling — shocking the first time you see it. (We have to explain before each first-time sleepover, “Nat didn’t have a mom or dad to rock her to sleep in the orphanage, so she learned to rock herself to sleep. All of the kids did it.” ) And, hardest of all, her anxiety-fueled neediness: Do you like me? I don’t think you like me. Are you mad at me? You seem mad. Repeated over, and over, and over, and over.

Both girls were getting something out of the relationship, and it was enough, for a time, to outweigh the negatives.

Lie to me
I promise I’ll believe
Lie to me
But please don’t leave.

Natalie would gladly have continued the friendship, despite the imbalance of power, the patronizing attitude. Even the heart-wrenching feeling of seeing Lydia at school, and having her pretend not to know her, was something Nat was willing to take in exchange for a part-time friendship. And I let that go on because I wanted Nat to have what she so badly wanted — a “normal” friend. But the time came when Lydia did decide to leave, to end the friendship, just before the beginning of this school year, as they entered fourth grade. Her actions are absolutely understandable given the social milieu of girls that age — I know that, intellectually. How could I have hoped for anything different?

So, Sheryl, why do I still feel like hell? And when are you leaving?