Some friends play at friendship but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin. (Proverbs 18:24 NRSV)
Everyone wants and needs relationships. We are hard-wired for it. One of the biggest hurts I have felt as a parent is wanting my child to feel accepted and connected to others. In the support groups I lead it is a common issue that resurfaces again and again. I talk to parents about nurturing the relationships they do have and they switch to talking about relationships their children don’t have. I have been mulling around an idea that has not really taken shape yet, but it goes something like this. Wouldn’t it be great if churches could host a “Just One Friend” night. Invite the special needs community and anyone else who is looking for friendships. Set up games and activities. Parents stay and help foster connections. This in’t a respite night. It’s a relationship building night. Kids build relationships with kids. Parents build relationships with each other. The general premise is that folks are coming to have fun and meet new people that they may want to connect with after game night is over. That’s kind of a bare bones snap shot, but I think it could be a way churches could offer important relief from isolation, which is a big part of healing on the journey with special needs.
Here are a couple of practical strategies I used for nurturing friendships when my son was younger. I recognize that this is not a universal list for all the various differences amongst our children. Hopefully it will at least provide some fertile ground for other ideas to spring up as well:
- Remind your child that everyone will be looking to meet new people. They are not alone in that feeling of being in a class with new people.
- Have your child talk to kids who are friendly and suggest they ask them questions. Kids love to talk about what they did over the summer. Be an interested listener.
- Have them look for others who look lonely and talk to them. My son can spot a kid on autism spectrum in heartbeat. Like matches with like sometimes. They get him in a way others don’t.
- Have them make friends with grownups at school. The cafeteria monitor can be a great ally in finding friends and avoiding bullying.
- Dress like everyone else. This sounds basic, but it is amazing what an impact it can have if a child is “over-dressed” for school, especially boys. If they look like they came from a fashion shoot for children’s resort wear change their clothes!
- If you feed them they will come. If Craig had a friend over in elementary school (not an everyday occurrence!) I’d ask his guest what was his or her favorite cookie and then bake them while the kids played. Over the years Craig’s friends started calling our house Craig’s Pub. As teens, I started calling them the herd that comes to graze. BTW – 5 grazers coming for a half day video game birthday bonanza this weekend. (Number of gamers times number of pizza slices I think they want plus an extra two per person because they are boys divided by the number of slices in a large pizza…) Prayers appreciated that I don’t get trampled in the kitchen!
- In keeping with the above strategy, drop by once or twice a month to the school cafeteria with a couple of pizzas or one of those giant cookie cakes. Some folks grab a slice and run. Others grab a slice and stay.
- If you typically pack a treat in your child’s lunch, pack two so that they have an extra to share.
- Invite others. Waiting around for a playdate invitation that doesn’t come feels lousy. Make the effort to extend yourself. Sometimes there will be rejection, but other times you get a winner.
- Be intentional about fostering relationships. Even small acts of kindness are nurturing.
What are some friendship strategies that have worked in your household? Please comment and share ideas. You never know what may help another parent spark a friendship.
Prayer: Loving God, We are wonderfully made to be in connection with others. Please help those connections to grow among our children. Calm nervous feelings about meeting new people and open pathways for meaningful relationships to flourish. Amen.
Photo: “Calahan Colorado High School Cafeteria” by David Shankbone