When we think back, we can all probably identify the first friend we ever had. If you are lucky enough to still be connected to that friend, then I would say you are privileged to have enjoyed such a lengthy relationship. Friendship starts out easy, like level one on a video game, but the complexity of relationships mean that this ease is often replaced with more complex and demanding interactions, forcing some people to only enjoy what Jennifer O' Toole coined as "eras of friendship" in her book "Autism in Heels: The Untold Story of a Female Life on the Spectrum". If you are on the spectrum, then you may find that the idea of "eras" in friendship are all too common to you. Friendships that perhaps begin strong, but wain once things become more complicated. You may find that you are the recipient of ghosting behaviour, that your friend simply stops contacting you, or that their interaction lessens until all that remains is the occasional text or response with emoji. You may be none the wiser as to what happened, or how to fix it. Before you realise, your relationship disappears altogether and you move onto your next level one, the cycle repeating itself without any intervention or longevity to the relationships. How can we teach our children to break that cycle? If it is our own cycle, can we develop self awareness to notice the signals and halt that cycle? What skills do we need to protect and nourish our friendships to ensure their survival?
Teaching children about friendship is difficult, make no bones about it. Friendship is an abstract concept and in order to teach it, we have to break it down and make it a concrete concept with parameters, rules and guidelines. Most people start by telling children that their classmates are their friends, and while this is fine in the early pre-school years and even perhaps the junior and senior infants years in school, children generally progress beyond this over generalisation by first class or around the age of seven. This is where we see the social gap widening and often autistic children being left behind because the pace of the social interaction ramps up.
We need to anticipate this gap and teach awareness and social responsibilities early. So where do we start? Well, start with what a friend is and what friends should and should not do. Bringing an awareness of responsibilities in friendship is a vital step. By creating this awareness, you begin the first steps towards recognising bullying behaviour, making your child less of a target for bullying and also instilling the parameters of friendship, the solid foundation needed for lasting friendships. I find a checklist is an easy way to teach children to analyse their relationships. Pick out the qualities that a friend should possess (e.g. helps you when you are down, asks to see you outside of the school setting, stands up for you, helps you when you find something hard) and formulate a checklist that you child can use when they are unsure. Be sure to explain that this is just a guide, and if they are still unsure, they can come to you and you will analyse the relationship together and ascertain if this person truly is a friend, or is simply an acquaintance. It is vitally important that we instil the same responsibilities in our children, to ensure that they satisfy the criteria for the other person. This is a step which is often forgotten and can prove problematic later.
Now once you have built your foundation, what next? Well now it's time to concentrate on interpersonal skills. People often set out to teach social interaction by teaching manners. While manners are a subset of skills, they are often not the skills which will help peer relationships to blossom. From my experience, 8 year olds aren't all that concerned with etiquette. They're more likely to be swayed by their knowledge of current trends in toys, games or music. So rather than looking at polite ways to interact, observe typical peers and see how they interact, then set out ways to teach that. Cultural literacy is of huge importance to pre-teens and teens, so try to understand the current trends; slang and abbreviations used, popular entertainers, music, tv shows. If you can facilitate your child's cultural education, you will help them to engage in conversations with peers, understand their likes and dislikes, and even if they won't engage in conversation on the topics, they are not out of the loop.
While teaching reciprocal conversation skills, remember to teach them to pay heed to the clues that tell them the other person is bored or disinterested in the topic of conversation. Likewise, teach your child how to respond with kindness when they lack interest in the conversation. This one skill can see children alienated for badgering peers with information or hogging conversations, so it is vital that we teach it early and effectively. I always like the idea of a hogging picture. A pig with a great big smile, in card form that can be pulled out as an indicator that your child is "hogging". They can then move to involve the listener in the conversation without any verbal prompting, while also having a giggle at the smiling hog. Obviously this card is only used within the home or teaching environment, but it serves as a reminder and is an effective tool in developing self awareness of dominating conversations.
Now we have ascertained what a friend is, and how to interact reciprocally, we need to concentrate on teaching children how to keep the friendship afloat. Often, friendships fade because the child either doesn't pay enough attention to the needs, interests and feelings of their friend, or pays too much heed to them, almost smothering them with attention and expecting the friend to remain exclusively theirs. This polar opposite approach to friendship, often garners the same results, a break in relations or a drifting in priorities. Either way, we need to address both early in the relationship and discuss the social ramifications of the behaviour before it becomes a difficulty. If the child leans towards a blasé approach to friendship, only engaging when engaged, not actively seeking the company of others, we need to teach the child to check in with their friends and ask leading questions, so that their friend feels valued. If the child is more inclined to dominate, you can offer strategies to help them cope with their friends engaging with other friends, giving them options of things to do when the other friend is engaged. Put on your kid goggles and try to see every possible problem that may arise. Offer solutions which are flexible, and praise them when they use them. If a child is used to a certain pattern of behaviour, they will require not only assistance, but recognition of effort in order to change their tact. Stressing the social ramifications of their behaviour is key, show them what could happen and how the other person might feel. "Comic book conversations" by Carol Gray offers an excellent medium for presenting these scenarios in visual format. You can also let them experience their own behaviour, badger them for a day, insist they only speak to you, tell them that they are your best friend and are not allowed to engage with anyone else. They may be simply unable to understand their behaviour from the other person's perspective, so allow them to live it and they may see clearer.
Friendships are difficult, there is no denying that. Often times they end and we are none the wiser as to the reasoning behind the sharp decline in relations. People who experience these eras, are often left with feelings of unworthiness, sadness and hopelessness, left to start again from scratch, all the time dreading history repeating itself. Self awareness, of responsibilities and behaviour, is the greatest gift you can give a child. It will aid their socialisation forever more and help them to achieve lasting, healthy, equitable relationships. Yes, this takes planning. It takes problem solving and individualisation of lesson plans. However, it is a skill that will impact the entire life of that child. So spend the time now and enrich their relationships forever.