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“I Want Friends, But They Don’t Want Me”

Hyperactive, awkward, and immature: with these off-putting traits of attention deficit, my son might as well have a “kick me” sign on his back when it comes to his peers.

My son, Ricochet, has had trouble socially ever since his peers were old enough to be perceptive and discerning. By second grade, he came home and told me about kids being mean to him at school. He was up against a throw-you-on-the-ground-on-the-playground-and-punch-you-repeatedly bully in third grade — a kid who, with his posse of miniature thugs, taunted Ricochet until he reacted.

In the three years since, my son has been called “gay,” “dummy,” “dork,” “baby,” among other things. Ricochet may not be able to read social cues like body language and tone of voice, but he knows that being punched and called names hurts.

Each school year Ricochet instantly connects with a kid or two in his class who is hyperactive and awkward, like Ricochet. The same was true this past school year, in fifth grade. His teacher came to IEP meetings and told me my son does great socially, because he spends all of his time with two other boys in his class — outcasts like Ricochet. The school thinks he’s doing just fine with social skills.

Outside of recess, where these imaginative boys can be themselves together, Ricochet struggles a lot. This momma’s heart breaks because, at 11 years old, he’s too old for me to step in and mediate. He’s gullible, immature, and awkward — he might as well have a “kick me” sign on his back.

We used to live at the top of a mountain when Ricochet was younger. We moved off the mountain and into a traditional neighborhood almost two years ago, in part so that our children could learn to ride a bike, and have other kids within walking distance to hang out with. We settled into our neighborhood in fall 2012 and began looking around for boys Ricochet’s age. There didn’t seem to be any until a family moved in across the street about six months later. They had a boy in fourth grade also. It seemed like kismet.

I recognized that Ricochet’s quirks and obsessions could be annoying to his peers, so I didn’t know if these boys would be friends. The possibility for my kiddo was exciting, though. They quickly began to play outside, play video games, and build Legos together. They became fast friends and spent a good amount of time together. They are in the same grade, but Ricochet is almost a year older than our neighbor, so that bridges some of the maturity gap and works to his advantage.

A year went by with a few misunderstandings and disputes, but the boys remained friends. Then it changed seemingly in an instant. As a pre-teen, his friend began spending more time with his older brother and emulating him. Pretty soon, Ricochet became the target of jokes and aggressive behavior from our neighbor boys. His calm, kind friend was neither calm nor kind anymore.

Ricochet was deeply hurt. He came in the house crying and slamming doors. He didn’t understand why they were mean to him. He didn’t understand why his friend seemed to have turned on him. After a fairly aggressive encounter a few weeks ago, Ricochet kicked his friend in anger, and was punched in the face. After talking it through with his therapist, he decided to explain to his friend why he got angry, apologize for kicking him, and put it all behind him.

Ricochet did apologize. But as soon as he joined his friend and his older brother at the park, he was told he was no longer welcome. His friend is maturing at a neurotypical rate and isn’t interested in Ricochet — who is still naïve and child-like in the presence of older kids. I am a friend of the kids’ mom, but I didn’t feel like it was my place to talk to her about it. I didn’t feel like it would do any good. In fact, it could make the situation worse.

Ricochet was hurt, but recognized that he was not willing to be the gullible scapegoat in the group any more. He spent the first three weeks of summer break alone, determined not to be the first one to try to break the feud. Every now and then I gave him some ideas on how he might break the ice, only to be told his friend had to apologize before he talked to him again.

Yesterday we talked in the car about inviting him to a water-gun fight, something the boys enjoyed together in the past. Ricochet still seemed unwilling. Yet, as I pulled into the garage when we returned home, Ricochet said, “I’m going to see if he wants to have a water gun fight.” He jumped out and ran across the street.

It worked! His friend was game, and they ended up hanging out together for several hours. Much to my relief, it looks like they will spend time together again, at least without the presence of his friend’s older brother.

Still, I am very worried about Ricochet’s future. I fear what the social machine will do to him in middle school and high school.