Ability to listen to others key strategy for making friends

Kids and/or adults who practiced listening to others, had more successful social experiences than did those who tried almost desperately to sell themselves. | Getty Images

Q: I am not sure that I fully understand this but apparently I had some trouble during the birth of our second-oldest child.

Whatever happened, the end product is still the same — our son has cerebral palsy. He can walk and talk and do most everything but he does so slowly and of course he walks with a pronounced limp.

For the most part, my husband and I have been able to handle those struggles and disappointments that seem to be an integral part of any physical disability and I think that we have done a great job of supporting our son when he walks to school or makes his way over to his weekly cub scout meetings, but I have to admit that the other day I lost it.

I think that I cried for hours. What I saw and what hurts me inside beyond compare is the horrific loneliness that burns itself into the very soul of my boy.

There he was, on the playground, it was recess, and all of the kids were running and jumping and laughing and playing, just as kids will do, and all of them were having a great time.

But my son wasn’t. He was standing over by the sandbox, by himself, watching the other kids and knowing the whole time that he was not part of it.

None of the special therapists who spent so much time with our son when he was younger — the physio therapists, the occupational therapists, the rec programmers, the counselors, teachers, teacher’s aides — none of them taught him the secret path to making friends with your peers.

My husband and I both want to help our son through this thing. We would like to help him grow into a more rewarding social path but we don’t know what to do.

Somehow getting him to smile at strangers, be polite or pretend that he is really “cool” just doesn’t fit. How do we get our son to sell himself so that he can enjoy that inclusive feeling that all of us deserve when we are children on the playground?

A: I would like to refer to some studies done a few years ago that tried to isolate those talents and skills that help all of us, children and adults, disabled and non-disabled, successfully make our way through our social environments.

The studies focused on two general strategies that any or all of us follow in the process of making friends.

The first strategy is selling yourself. Kids or adults who sell themselves try to impress others with whatever skill or talents they have to offer to their communities. The second strategy for social success depends on social sensitivity.

The simplified skill here is learning how to listen effectively to others who are milling around you. I am sure that it will be no surprise to you to know that the kids and/or adults who followed the second strategy, who practiced listening to others, had more successful social experiences than did those who tried almost desperately to sell themselves.

This is not to say that you can never be assertive. Of course you can. It is just a matter of deciding when being assertive is appropriate. When you are looking to make those early contacts with other people during the initial stages of the relationship it might be best to put aside your pearls of talent for even just a short while.

For you to best help your son get that necessary mark in his social reality, you can best help him by focusing on that dreaded playground. Who is doing what with whom? The more your son understands the social movement on the playground and the more he understands what he likes about each of the other children in his bubble of interplay, the more likely it is that he will figure out ways that he can get more involved with them.

And the more interest he shows in them, the greater is the probability that they will show an interest in him.

It is a two-way street. It starts with him listening to the other kids. All you have to do is make sure that he stays on that street and he does not let his sensitivity about his disability impair some probabilities for really good friendships.

Jacklin Andrews is a family counsellor from Saskatchewan. Contact: jandrews@producer.com.

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