Making Friends

Someone to Play With: Finding Friends for My Child

My son is not socially gifted, but it’s not his fault: it runs in the family. Friends don’t come easily to him — or to me. But together we’re figuring it out.

Children with ADHD playing together
Children with ADHD playing together

Parents are often the last to know when a child has attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). Not because they’re unintelligent, but because their love blinds them to certain realities that others easily perceive. If you’ve been wondering whether your child has ADHD, it might help to ask yourself: “Does my child have friends? Does he get invited over to play with other children?”

Although my son, James, has developed all the other skills in the job description for childhood, friendship has eluded him. This thing “normal” children create so effortlessly must be painstakingly taken apart, analyzed, and synthesized by my child’s brain, each step of the way.

I can look back on James’s early childhood and see all the signs — of his distress and my oblivion. It started with a call from the day-care center: James wouldn’t nap, and he was disturbing the other children. I murmured some vague disclaimer, all the while thinking, “Good for him!”

As a child, I hadn’t gone in for napping, either, and my mother had eventually been forced to take me out of nursery school. I was in complete solidarity with my son.

Smiling at his Hijinks

The next call from the day-care center elicited some not-so-nice emotions from me (I can’t believe I used to wonder where my son got his belligerence). Gravely, the director informed me that James was knocking over the other children’s blocks. When I heard this, I had to suppress a laugh.

[Free Handout: Get a Grip on Tough Emotions]

The image of James taking a swipe at a tower of blocks seemed comical. I admired the nerve of this boy, his willingness to brook the disapproval of his peers. Besides, what could I say? That I’d speak to him about it? He was barely three years old.

The next call was not funny, even to me. The director asked my husband and me to come in for a talk. She could no longer keep James in the program, because he was scaring the other children. She advised us to enroll him in the public school’s early-intervention program. We sat gaping, stunned by this rejection. It was the first of many rejections that lay ahead.

Being Sorry Didn’t Matter

Still, it took a few more ruptured relationships before I was ready to appreciate the extent of my son’s difficulty with other children. I remember the afternoon James was playing outside with a friend’s three children. The girl did something that made James mad. He picked up a rock and threw it at her head. Luckily, she escaped with only a bump, but her mom chewed me out: How could I have let this happen? My feeling was, how could I not? James had picked up that rock and thrown it before I could so much as yell his name. My sincere contrition counted for nothing. I was a parent who put other children in harm’s way.

The next incident involved a couple we’d seen often before our boys were born. We invited them for the weekend, envisioning our four-year-olds playing happily for hours. At first everything seemed fine. James offered to take the boy down the hill to his “secret spot” in a stand of fir trees, and they set off while I made lunch. It was early summer, and we left the door open in case the boys needed anything.

[Free Parenting Resource: Manage Your Child’s Anger]

Then came a wailing sound. The other boy’s mom bolted from the table and ran down the hill. She returned with her sobbing son and announced that they were leaving immediately. I got up, mystified and hurt, trailing them to the front door, asking what had happened. The mother just shook her head as she strapped her son into his car seat.

The next day, my husband got the story, man to man, from the boy’s father. Apparently, once the boys were far from the house, James had said in a flat, chilling tone: “You’re all alone now.” Who knows what he had meant.

Finally — A Friend

In fourth grade, James finally made a friend — or so I thought. He chose a great boy — funny, generous, affectionate. The boy’s mother worked two jobs, and I quickly offered to fill in as babysitter. The boys had a couple of sleepovers and they made up a rock ‘n’ roll band.

Ecstatic, my husband and I invited James’s friend to come for a week at the beach that summer. A few days before our scheduled departure, I took the boys to a local park for a swim. I sat reading the paper, warmed by the thought that my lonely only child had finally come out of the cold.

At one point the boys asked me for paper and pen, and I obliged, surprised, perhaps, but incurious. That night, I got a call from the park warden. Two boys had dumped campfire ashes inside a truck parked by the lake. The boys had scrawled obscenities on a piece of paper and placed it atop the ashes.

My first reaction, I now realize, was typical for a grownup with ADHD. It couldn’t have been James, I calmly told the warden, because James was a good speller; he would never misspell “damn you.” Alas, the miscreants confessed. (Maybe the friend had done the writing.) I felt obliged to tell the friend’s mother what had happened. She told her son not to play with James, ever, ever again.

How Loose is Too Loose?

My son’s tenth birthday is coming up, and I’m wondering what to do about a party. At his party last year, James lost another friend, a boy with Asperger syndrome. The boys were driving go-karts. The friend pulled ahead and — as he does whenever his position is challenged — James flew into a rage. After the race ended, the other boy curled so tightly into the fetal position that I had a hard time getting him into the car for the ride home.

After that, I called several times to invite the boy over to play, but his mother never called back. When I saw her in the pick-up circle at school, she said life for her son was hard enough without James.

Any parent of a child with ADHD probably has similar heartaches. And since ADHD runs in families, a parent’s distress is compounded by the realization that he or she is, genetically speaking, to blame. Coming, as I do, from the undiagnosed generation, it was galling to realize that that my parenting style, however loving, revealed my own ADHD traits: I have trouble anticipating what will happen, and I don’t read social cues well. My son praises me for being “a loose mom,” and it’s true that I am. But I’m afraid I may be too laissez-faire for him.

One benefit of having me for a mother is that I truly understand what my son is up against. If it took me this long to learn never to leave his side — not for a nanosecond — whenever he’s around other children, imagine how hard it must be for him to learn all the secret rules and rites of friendship.

Savoring Success When We Can

So we struggle along, my son and I, trying to behave appropriately and “make good choices.” We savor success when we can. Last spring James hit a baseball, with the bases loaded, and I practically lost my voice from screaming. Never mind that it wasn’t an organized team, or that he had already struck out in three previous at-bats. He was incredibly brave to give it another try, and it was grand beyond words to see him succeed.

No, James is not socially gifted. But like many other special-needs kids, he has strengths that could bring him strong friendships later in life. True to the profile, he’s bright, creative, and strong-willed. He doesn’t automatically respect authority, and, in part because he isn’t slavishly attuned to what other people think, he has a wonderful sense of humor. I figure if he can make it through childhood and adolescence, he’ll make a good (if bossy) adult friend.

Having spotted yet another example of what he calls “fake happiness” promoted by the self-worth industry, my son came home from school one day recently, scoffing. “Guess what we learned in ‘character ed.’ today,” he said dryly. Then, in a perfect, singsong schoolteacher voice, he mimicked: “Every day is a gift.”

We both burst out laughing. Then I said, “You know the funniest thing about that, James? It’s true.”

[Free Friendship Guide for Kids with ADHD]