Trouble in BFF-land: parenting version
December 18, 2022 6:42 PM   Subscribe

I think my neurodivergent kid has been friend dumped. What is my role as parent?

Context: my child is 10 and has ASD with lower support needs.

This is a friendship that was very close for several years, including through the pandemic school year and into the subsequent year. We became friendly with the parents as well. We started getting a spidey sense that something might not be right in the late spring, but over summer things seemed more normal and they got together a few times, and they both seemed to have fun. Then all of a sudden in September, it was like a switch flipped and no contact outside of school was reciprocated. It was striking enough that I suggested to my daughter that she contact the friend to ask her if she'd done something wrong, but the friend demurred and said she was just extremely busy (which is true, she seemed to have bit off more than she could chew for extracurriculars this year). At this point, though, we've gone through a birthday party cycle and gotten into school holiday season and there's been no thaw, so we're pretty sure as parents that this is indeed a friend breakup. They still eat lunch together but that's basically it.

We anticipated that something like this might happen, because we know these tween/early teen years can be super hard for girls with autism, but we had hoped it would not be this friend she'd lose. So far we've done what seem to us to be the normal parent things, tried to encourage our daughter to branch out and make new friends, but otherwise let her fumble her way through. It's a bit heartbreaking because we can't tell if our kid knows what is happening and is pretending not to (she does this sometimes) or is content with the line that the friend is just too busy and isn't noticing the other tells. Because she is autistic we suspect we may need to be more direct with her than other parents would be.

We've thought about asking the other parents if something happened between them that we should be trying to address with our kid -- normally I'd say we should stay out of it at this age, but since we'd been friendly with these particular people I'm less sure. When my partner has seen this other child himself he has actually been sort of worried that something is going on internally with her and that it isn't about our kid at all. Our interactions with the parents in the last few months have been superficially normal and warm, but there has also been fairly little reaching out to us, which they'd done in the past (before things went weird this fall we nearly went on a weekend trip with them; since then, just a wan happy holidays). So those things are in the mix as well.

What's the protocol here? Stay out of it and encourage new connections, as we've been doing? Check in once with the other parents, and then drop it? Something else?
posted by sockrilegious to Human Relations (21 answers total)
I think it really depends on your relationship with the other parents. If you're close enough to be talking about topics other than your kids, or to have talked about your kids' struggles before things turned weird with them, that might signify deeper friendship than the acquaintance-from-school-community standard. I wouldn't expect acquaintances to tell me the truth about their kid not wanting to hang out with my kid, but I would expect it of a friend.

Kids do fall in and out of friendships, and sometimes in again. If you think this might lead to a teachable social skill moment, and you're doing it for the benefit of the kids, I think it could be ok to talk to the other parents once. I wouldn't push it beyond that, though, and I'd be prepared to drop it if they clammed up.

Good luck.
posted by nadise at 8:41 PM on December 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

I checked in with the teachers to find out what was happening with a friendship break for a similar situation, and they were able to confirm one of the possible scenarios (my kid was not dumped but sort of delegated downwards for another friend it turned out). We practiced different scenarios at home and talked about friendships and social cues. We talked about the different possibilities and what she could control and do, and what she couldn't.

Change is hard, social cues are hard - finding a good fit is tough for kids on the spectrum. Talk to the parents once if the teachers aren't helpful in a non-blaming 'hey what's up so I can help my kid handle this change' way.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 8:45 PM on December 18, 2022 [4 favorites]

I can't comment on the ASD aspect, specifically. But have you asked your daughter, "I haven't heard much about Matilda for a while. Do you two still talk/hang out much? Yes/no? Hm, do you want to talk about that?" That's where I'd start. Otherwise, you'll just torment yourself with a whole lot of pointless speculation about what she's feeling or what might be going on.

It's not helicoptery to have conversations like this, if that's your concern. It's healthy for a parent to keep tabs on who their kid hangs out with, and to take some interest in those people. You're not asking your daughter about "Matilda" because you're inappropriately butting in, you're asking because you're curious about Matilda, too. And because you're an attentive parent who sees your daughter may be having emotional issues that she can't or won't express on her own.

I know this must be upsetting to witness. But neurodivergent or no, friendships do dissolve all the time at this age, and often in much more catastrophic terms. Your daughter is far from alone. And if Matilda is friend dumping, I must say, she's being fairly kind about it. Would it help to count that as a blessing?

There's a middle-grade book called All Alone in the Universe that might be helpful for coping, especially if it turns out there's some other girl in the mix who's become the preferred friend.
posted by desert outpost at 12:29 AM on December 19, 2022 [8 favorites]

I too wondered whether it might be appropriate to talk to the class teacher about whether there's anything going on with your kid or impacting on her in relation to this frien.
posted by plonkee at 1:15 AM on December 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

This seems incredibly helicopter-y to me. It has set my alarm bells ringing. I say this also as someone who has suspected ASD and has had social difficulties at school.

Kids and people fall in and out of friendships. It’s ok. Step back and be ready to support your child, talk through things with her, and be her bedrock in these tough times. Your job as a parent is not to bulldoze her path to social success, nor live her life for her. Discuss what the ending of friendships mean, what social signals can mean (or not), but do NOT check-in with other parents.

Let your child the freedom to mis-read social signals. Short of bullying, you should not be directly interfering with anything. Trust her to fumble through this imperfectly herself.
posted by moiraine at 1:18 AM on December 19, 2022 [9 favorites]

It's a bit heartbreaking because we can't tell if our kid knows what is happening and is pretending not to (she does this sometimes) or is content with the line that the friend is just too busy and isn't noticing the other tells. Because she is autistic we suspect we may need to be more direct with her than other parents would be.

In middle school I had a few different friendships end, some of which I didn't care about and some of which I cared about very much and was hurt and kind of bewildered over. If my parents knew or suspected, they never gave any sign. Which to me, personally, was exactly as it should be: my friends were my business, and I would not have responded well to what would have felt like my parents butting in. I would have seen it as intrusive and patronizing, as failing to respect my privacy and to my own personal life, and as a bit of a bull-in-a-china-shop situation. So there's no universal answer here.

It's not only autistic kids this happens to - it's extremely common, especially in these years when people are figuring out who they are and who they want to be and are often changing rapidly - and it's not really something that can be managed. If your kid is actually going through a hard time, and if they're the type of person who would welcome help from you, then by all means be there for them; I think maybe that's what you mean, and that that's why you're thinking of talking with the other parents (or why other people suggested talking to the teacher, which to me seems way overboard for this situation) - to try to figure out what's going on - but I don't think it'll give you the only relevant information here, which is how your daughter actually feels about the situation. If you find out - what, that the other kid told their parents that they didn't like your daughter anymore? that the teacher did not think they were friends? - I'm not sure how that would make you any more able to help your daughter if she is either pretending and doesn't want to talk about it, or if she doesn't understand what's going on, or if she genuinely is okay with the situation.

So I think all you can do is try keep an eye out on how your daughter's doing, give her lots of love, and try to have a relationship where she feels comfortable coming to you if she feels she wants to (though that's not something you can force, and some kids legitimately don't want to). And don't disregard the possibility that she really is fine, or that even if she's not fine it's okay, and not something you actually need to do anything about. You know your kid best and maybe she does need intensive emotional support from her parents - but maybe she doesn't, and her being autistic doesn't automatically mean that she does.

Finally, even if it turns out you do need to be there for her in a more intensive way, I'm not sure that trying to get to the bottom of her old friend's behavior is necessarily a great approach. It's an important life skill to learn how to deal with uncertainty, and to accept that sometimes - all too often - we can't really know what's going on with someone else, and that it can be their right not to have us know. It's also an important skill to learn how to let people go, and that it can be okay for friendships to change or end. (There are a lot of questions on here from adults who are still struggling with that.) I think you want to be careful that you don't try to "solve" or resolve the problem for her, and instead stay on the side of helping her to work through her own feelings, and giving her some context about how very common (and okay) a thing this can be, both for kids and adults.
posted by trig at 2:02 AM on December 19, 2022 [20 favorites]

I'm not sure where this "just let kids sort shit out on their own" comes from, but if you're looking for anxious, depressed adults who bottle shit inside and are afraid of reaching out and asking questions, this is how you get them.

I mentioned that the OP can and should discuss meanings of friendship, and should be there for the child to chat or just general love.

The difference here is that the OP is proposing to actively interfere. This is a big no-no. This does not let children fail in a controlled and managed manner, which is necessary for a child growing up. A ten year old whose friendship may have fallen away is a clear example of a very safe space in which to 'fail'.

Contrary to the view above, kids whose life are actively micromanaged or bulldozed for them (where parents step into friendships of 10-year old child) grow up into adults who are anxious about doing things right, and unable to manage their own emotions about failure and social situations.

This level of bulldozing is what leads to anxiety and depression later in life - an adult that is not being able to handle light rejection or just friendship falling away (a fairly normal occurence).
posted by moiraine at 2:47 AM on December 19, 2022 [14 favorites]

Contrary to the view above, kids whose life are actively micromanaged or bulldozed for them (where parents step into friendships of 10-year old child) grow up into adults who are anxious about doing things right, and unable to manage their own emotions about failure and social situations.

This level of bulldozing is what leads to anxiety and depression later in life - an adult that is not being able to handle light rejection or just friendship falling away (a fairly normal occurence).

This, 100%.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 4:49 AM on December 19, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks all. To clarify a little, part of why this is an issue is that every friendship she's had has required some involvement from us. She's never gone to the neighborhood school and so if there is going to be a get-together, we're the wheels. With this family, we're friendly enough that we've done social things together many times in the past, and so there's the additional piece of not wanting to show our own asses socially.

I can't tell how many of the respondents here are actually parents themselves, but I will say I was surprised and annoyed to realize when my daughter was in preschool that planned playdates were "how it is done" now. She never had very many, because I'm not good at the chief social planner role. She was nevertheless doing fine by my own standards prepandemic, with generally 2-4 kids at any one time that she could call friend. However, after several years of limited social contact, she's approaching the gauntlet of middle school with significantly less experience and understanding of relationships than I had (and that's frankly a pretty low bar) -- and also less experience than her peers have had, because we have managed pandemic risk very conservatively. You know that thing they say about literacy, where by third grade the emphasis moves from learning-to-read to reading-to-learn, and gaps begin to widen unrecoverably? That's the scenario I worry about -- that she might not be able to benefit from any of the learning-through-failure that commenters above envision, because at this point she may be behind enough there won't be any social contacts in the first place. We connected with her old speech therapy clinic a couple of months ago asking about social groups, but they have not brought these back, and no support is available at school either. It's not easy raising an autistic kid in this environment and I'd like to ask commenters to show me a little grace here.
posted by sockrilegious at 5:53 AM on December 19, 2022 [8 favorites]

There is a lot of middle ground between helicoptering and doing nothing. Talking with your kids (ASD and NT) about feelings and friends is always good. You want to be a safe space for that. Anxiously trying to perfect your child’s life and projecting your own social anxieties onto them is not good.

Anyway, I agree with the suggestion to talk to the teachers. They may be able to shed light on what’s going on. And more importantly they may be able to take steps to help your daughter branch out into new friendships - like a lunch bunch or pairing her with a child she gets along with for a class project. 5th graders are also not too old for parents to do some direct engineering, like getting the name of a kid they get along with in class and setting up a playdate. I did this for my 5th grader (on the spectrum) this year because he was “too shy” to invite his friend over, and it blossomed into a wonderful friendship.
posted by haptic_avenger at 5:58 AM on December 19, 2022 [2 favorites]

(Also - I wanted to add that the pandemic impacted our 5th grader in the same way. The main year they missed was 3rd, which seemed to be a year for huge social growth particularly in girls. Other parents had told me that 3rd grade was a tough year. I can almost name the day in 3rd grade where my son all of a sudden started struggling with new social rules. If they had been in school it seems like it would have been a more gradual and natural adjustment.)
posted by haptic_avenger at 6:06 AM on December 19, 2022

Wait sorry for the multiple posts. Why is “no support” available at school? You can write social supports into the IEP. I’ve also found that teachers and staff are usually really open to providing gentle support (like pairing kids up who seem like they could be friends).
posted by haptic_avenger at 6:15 AM on December 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

They're eating lunch with this kid every day still? That is absolutely still a friend. Lots of kids primarily socialize within school hours and that's not a problem.
posted by metasarah at 6:27 AM on December 19, 2022 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I am a parent of a younger kid who lost out on a lot of socializing in the pandemic and I think your concern is totally appropriate.

I would take a different tactic rather than just trying to investigate the friendship with this one kid - I would engineer several different Petri dishes for friendship into her life, and see what grows.

- for this specific kid, I would invent some super fun hangout dates (Trampoline park? Rock climbing? Pottery class? Gingerbread house?) and invite the friend so she’s more inclined to come, and their friendship may warm up again.

- engineer some fun hangouts with a couple of other kids who seem like good potential friends. Maybe a regular lesson where they drive together? Or just some play dates, but try to have a few in a row to let the friendship build.

- nurture new friendships in a non-school context so she has 2 groups of friends. Whether that’s church, summer camp, lessons, etc. I had a bad time in middle school but I was popular and liked by my peers in scouts and summer camp and it was a HUGE help to my self esteem to realize that the problem wasn’t me, it was that my middle school was toxic. Even now when I think back to that era, the fact that kids in other contexts actively liked me still keeps me from self-blaming when I remember toxic stuff that happened in middle school.

I would just put extra effort into helping create more places for her to practice making and being friends, so this one kid isn’t her main avenue for social practice.

The ways I listed are how I’m managing my own concerns about my kid.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 6:31 AM on December 19, 2022 [13 favorites]

Best answer: That's the scenario I worry about -- that she might not be able to benefit from any of the learning-through-failure that commenters above envision, because at this point she may be behind enough there won't be any social contacts in the first place.

I don't know if this helps at all, but almost all of my social contacts growing up happened in school: this was before widespread internet and private phone lines, and getting rides to friends' houses was often a major hassle that I usually tried to avoid (which isn't great but that's how it was). But the fact that those contacts were in school doesn't mean they didn't happen, or that there weren't a ton of successes and failures to learn from. I also was not a particularly social kid when young, and when I was in elementary school this stressed my parents somewhat and they tried to set up playdates for me and so forth, which I hated and which made me feel like they didn't understand me. But in later years I became a lot more social, on my own. So I don't think there's as much of an issue here about falling irretrievably behind or anything, and I don't think there's anywhere near as rigid a ladder as there is for academic progress (which itself is kind of a shortcoming of a one-size-fits-all educational system; ideally being a late bloomer would not be a problem).

You learn from having friends, from making friends and from losing friends, and from interacting with people you're not friends with. And to be honest I think there are also things you learn from not having friends, much like how serially-partnered people are sometimes advised to spend some time on their own after a breakup. I know that I learned from my non-social years not to stick with friends who pressured me or treated me badly, because I knew I was also fine on my own. I wasn't afraid of it.

So I think, still, that the thing to do is to observe your kid, and try to notice if she actually seems unhappy. Try to make it so she can talk with you if she needs it, and talk with her in general terms about how she likes school, what good parts or bad parts there were in her day, whether there's anything she wants to learn to do or any goals she has, and so forth, rather than things like "do you have friends?" or "are you still friends with X?" or "you should try to make friends". You can also try to sneakily teach some social skills in other ways, like by watching TV together and talking about the relationships there, or talking through your own interactions with your friends - not in an educational kind of way but just as a sharing-about-your-life kind of thing.

And I think it's important not to be too scared for her. It's stressful, thinking of all the ways things can go wrong for kids, but it's really important to let them have space too. Having few friends, or no friends, at any particular point is not necessarily a terrible thing; it's only bad if it makes her unhappy. And it doesn't necessarily mean she won't develop social skills, or that she will if she has more friends (different friends teach you different lessons, some of which can sometimes need to be unlearned). People learn, and fail to learn, in all kinds of ways that you can't predict.
posted by trig at 6:41 AM on December 19, 2022 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Little support is available at school (no IEP, no 504) because she is at a private school that does not receive qualifying federal funding. We have been told she would not be eligible for services at the public school, either, because she is “high-functioning” enough (I know…) that she would not be considered to have “educational autism” by the public school teams who get to apply their own diagnosis in our state. In practice I’m also not sure how much support any kid is getting for anything at the local public because of post-pandemic disarray.

At the risk of sounding like a helicopter… Re: why we think this is a moribund friendship even though they are still eating together — they eat in a group with other kids, kids my daughter also likes but has not felt comfortable asking for playdates with, and it may well be that my kid is kind of a hanger on. The school’s anti bullying policy is very strong, to their credit, so there is a culture of inclusion during the school day that does not necessarily apply outside the walls of the school. When we see these two together, my kid is the same goofy kid she’s always been and this other kid is closed off and more or less ignores her or else is distant and polite. Completely different vibe than in the past. We’ve so far observed and asked our daughter gentle questions as suggested upthread and that is all.
posted by sockrilegious at 6:43 AM on December 19, 2022

Not to derail, but it’s completely false that your child would not qualify for an IEP just because she is on grade level. Look for an educational consult for more information in your district. Often all it takes is showing up with a consultant to get the IEP. Ironically the more disarray there is in the district the more likely they are to roll over when you make clear you know your rights. They are not organized enough to have a strategy.

Anyway! It sounds like there may be some potential friendships in the current lunch group. I’d ask teachers about that. BTW “goofy” is the characteristic that my DS has that seems to be the key to his developing friendships. Other kids seem to really like it. There’s a reason a lot of comedians are on the spectrum!
posted by haptic_avenger at 6:53 AM on December 19, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It is really hard.

I would just doubly recommend the idea of creating a "third space" for her if you are worried about her social development, where she can make friends with a different group. Bonus if you can find something in your neighbourhood. Camp is also a great idea. Depending on the activity or group you choose, it can also become a source of learning and self-esteem outside of the school system.

I think the parental role is to create opportunities and not to manage the specific relationships.

For sure, if your daughter is upset or needs comfort or care that's really important. But I wouldn't hyperfocus on this one friendship. It will make it too high-stakes for all of you (and it seems a bit like it is for you already.) I noticed in your language you have some fears for your daughter:

if something happened between them that we should be trying to address with our kid - you may not have meant it this way but I read this as something your daughter did. The thing is, in friendships, things happen and sure sometimes we all have things we need to improve friendship is not a pattern. You may have just meant helping her with the experience thought!

That's the scenario I worry about -- that she might not be able to benefit from any of the learning-through-failure that commenters above envision, because at this point she may be behind enough there won't be any social contacts in the first place. - I'm neurodivergent and for that and about 1543 other reasons including being off-step academically and clueless parents, I had very few friends in elementary - I had the party where you invite the class and 2 'nice kids' show up. I made tons of friends in high school and we are friends today - just saw a few of them over the weekend, in fact. You have time!!

it may well be that my kid is kind of a hanger on - that's okay. She can take up space. The school's policy is a really good one and it is okay for people to hang out nicely and not be friends - for all the kids involved. Expanding her experience might be good so that if here is an issue she comes to see it ('my swimming friend always likes to come over, but this group never do') but it's okay to let it be what it is.

Source: my own kids, my childhood, and a whack of kids I have seen come through my after-school program & camps including kids on the spectrum.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:07 AM on December 19, 2022 [7 favorites]

tried to encourage our daughter to branch out and make new friends

Saying this to people with ASD is like telling people with depression to "just feel happy." They need explicit instruction and/or observe the entire process of you making friends. Discuss exact things you could say and ways to invite people to things that allow saving face. I would think role playing could work, but so could having adults recount every step it took for them to make their friends in explicit detail. The nice thing about the latter is your own kid saves face, it can just be something you and your adult friends can monologue over dinner, which can be chalked up to nostalgia.

They don't teach making friends in school. It's a skill you, as the parent, need to make effort to cultivate. And if you're bad at making friends, then you need to enlist people who aren't to help.
posted by flimflam at 8:02 AM on December 19, 2022 [2 favorites]

They still eat lunch together but that's basically it.

They're still friends then. It sounds like she's just actually busy.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:11 PM on December 19, 2022

I’m surprised by those who say that talking to the other child’s parents is a bridge too far, particularly since it doesn’t seem that you intend to do so an in interfering or blaming way. I think it’s totally appropriate to ask them for insight into whether or not your child committed a “social crime” of which they (and you) are unaware. Even if it’s too late to recover this friendship, perhaps it will reveal an unconscious habit that your child can work on in other settings, or perhaps it will turn out to be some random idiosyncratic issue that your child doesn’t want to change about themselves. Either way, I say ask.
posted by cranberrymonger at 9:25 PM on December 25, 2022

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