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Fear of Friend-ing

March 28, 2009

During our workshops we make sure that people have a chance to talk about their fears and negative experiences – about what hasn’t worked and what has. Often they haven’t had many opportunities to debrief.   Usually we find they’ve talked a lot about things they’ve tried that haven’t worked, but not in a problem-solving way…   For caregivers, families and professionals, whole mythologies have built up around “the day i took him bowling” or whatever else the fateful event might have been. Usually we find there hasn’t been much problem-solving around what might have been done next,  what could have been done differently, or any actual de-briefing around what worked and didn’t work: he was glad to go out on a Saturday; he hated the noise of the bowling balls as they went down the lanes; there were too many people; we should have told him what to expect before we got there. That kind of debriefing, particularly with a small helpful hopeful team, will give you information you need: likes to go out, free on saturday, doesn’t like noise, prefers less people, needs more information about expectations.   It’ll set things up for more success the next time.

So there are a couple of striking things about the kinds of mythologies that arise.  One is that similar mythologies don’t arise around success stories: “He met someone at the city jogging club who also found it hard to focus with so many people and preferred a later start time; now they go out, just the two of them, in the early afternoon – last week they went for a run and then went swimming and decided they’d go to a movie this weekend.”   Maybe it’s not dramatic enough.   No one is swinging from the chandelier (in case you think I live in a dream world, as some people accuse me of, I am one of the few people  I know who has actually got someone off the chandelier they were swinging from and clinging to).

The other striking thing is how emotionally involved, how despairing and fraught these bad experiences are for the folks who support people with disabilities. They take these events so seriously and care so much. These “disasters.” I find, as a person who perhaps needs to work on my own empathy skills, this sense of trauma a little disconcerting.  Am I just too detached?   As a parent, I’m glad these folks care so much about my kids.  As a professional and colleague I feel impatient.  How many of us, without disabilities, have had how many bad social experiences? My bow-tie was crooked for the entire duration of my wedding; it’s crooked in every picture (except the one that my partner photo-shopped). But that’s not the first story I tell about my wedding, during which (as in all these celebrations), a number of unlikely friends and family members came together and met and celebrated our dreams with us in the most powerful way.   Likewise, when I talk to people about living with my dog I don’t tell them about how my puppy peed on my leg in the gym at the doggie socialisation class, distracted by new possible puppy friends.  I tell them about he brings me his water bowl when it’s empty and how he responds to my son, his owner, and how delightful a companion he is.  Nor, when I talk about my son, do I tell the story (often) of when he was 4 and wanted to buy his own red peppers for the first time, from the greengrocer’s huge pyramid of peppers and I heard him cry, from a too-disant aisle away, “AVALANCHE!!!!” Instead I might talk about his genius for music and how he loved the class in Shakespeare that he took…

So the level of trauma that people feel when things have gone awry socially for the folks they support, and their sense that these are stories they need to share and promulgate, surprises and puzzles me. I recently read an online article by Martha Brockenbrough, mother of a small child, that somewhat educated me out of my lack of empathy for the fearfulness with which people talk about these events gone awry in the pursuit of a network of friends and supporters:

All too soon, the [other] girls crawled out, leaving Lucy alone. Sure, Lucy is a little young for friends who can run around and shriek real words. She’s even too young to play with kids her own age, although other babies fascinate her and she loves to be near them. I know these things intellectually, from all the books and articles on child development I’ve read.

Yet all that knowledge didn’t stop my heart from breaking just a bit to see her delight fade so quickly when the girls ditched her.

My brother-in-law told me to get used to this feeling. Part of the agony of parenthood is watching our children try to make friends with others, and either succeed or fail. You instinctively dislike seeing your child get rejected.

This instinct serves a good purpose. It turns out that the ability to make friends is critical for the success of our children, even early on. And it’s not just because friends make our children smile and laugh. Friends may also help kids do better in school because so much of their learning comes from interaction with others, according to a 1998 study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And kids who feel connected in school will be happier getting on the bus in the morning.

What’s a parent’s job in this, other than to get a stomachache every time our children venture onto the playground in search of friends?

The thing is, our fears do nothing good for anyone; our attachment to events gone wrong does nothing for anyone. Our fears lead us to become more fearful of the next time, more predicative of disaster. And it’s a viral thing… the more we talk about it, the more it’s talked about. The less hope the family is able to maintain. The less capacity the person feels. Our only hope, indeed, is in staying positive and hopeful.

And that’s an sequence of actions. First, pluck out the things that went right even in the worst disaster – something went right – they showed up, they gave it a try, they weren’t (exactly) asked never to return, they’re willing to try something else, to try again. Resilience is an amazing thing to witness. Second, use the situation to plan for more success next time around: what happened that could be better next time. Problem-solve in a hopeful way. Third, take care of the support-person (staff, parent, friend) who was with the person when things went wrong: what do they need? Hopeful music? Inspiring books? A hug? To be helped to see the humour in it all? Only focus on what will move you and yours forward in your goals.

Martha Brockenbrough’s full article is found here:

“The practice of peace and reconciliation is one of the most vital and artistic of human actions.” Thich Nhat Hanh

One Comment leave one →
  1. mishel permalink
    April 1, 2009 3:08 pm

    I really needed to read ‘fear of friend-ing’; thank you. After years of watching my now 10yr old son’s attempts to make a friend, fail – I sometimes get all tense inside, and notice a slightly clenched-hand when I try to facilitate the next attempt(since it doesn’t seem to be happening naturally, & he wants it so badly!) “fears do nothing for anyone”. I completely KNOW that! Just needed a reminder to focus right-out of the fear. thanks.

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