Monday, March 7, 2011

When friendships fall apart

I met an amazing family here a number of years ago, after their son had a stroke. More recently, the mom of this family shared that the most painful aspect of her son's brain injury was his subsequent loss of friends. I'm very grateful that this parent has put pen to paper to share her experiences with us! Louise

It's with great interest that I've been following the stories shared by parents who find themselves filled with sorrow over the friendship difficulties experienced by their 'different' children and thought I'd share mine.

My son suffered a severe brain injury at age eight. On the outside, he was left unable to use his right side and now uses a brace to walk. He's unable to participate in most sports and in this two-handed world, he often needs assistance. On the inside, his processing speed was slowed, so classrooms, fast-paced conversations, movies and books all present a challenge to him. Crowds and noisy areas now bother him, which means busy school settings, crowded malls and even large family gatherings make him edgy and anxious. He had to relearn a lot of the social nuances that we take for granted, a process which is ongoing. Over the last seven years he's learned strategies for coping with most of these and I'm really proud of the strides he's made and the person he's become. While I think his challenges have made him empathetic, kind and mature (that is, relatively speaking for a teenager!), they have also created barriers to acceptance and friendships with his peers.

Before brain injury, my son was incredibly bright, a gifted athlete, and extremely popular with his peers and teachers. Even at eight years old, he was the 'go-to guy' with his quick smile, positive outlook and caring personality. In the `after,' he couldn't play hockey, participate on school teams, or keep up with others in the schoolyard (they ran everywhere!). When you`re an eight-year-old boy, this is a big deal, as not a lot of time is spent conversing or playing quiet games. Boys roughhouse, race, climb monkey bars and ride bikes.

At first his friends were supportive and visited often. However, as time went on, between his physical limitations, communication deficiencies and the realization that this wasn`t just a broken leg that would heal, they grew impatient and started to drift away. He started finding himself alone at recess and after school. He attempted to maintain contact with them but they were too fast in every way! While I understood the mechanics of this alienation, I couldn`t help but be saddened that we are so often unable to rise above this kind of ostracization when one of our own is in need. Of all the things our family dealt with as a result of the brain injury -- this lack of friendships was the most difficult challenge to face and caused the greatest pain.

Here in the `after,' it became my mission to make my son's friendship situation better. I encouraged him to define what friendship meant to him and to think about the qualities that would make a good friend. Even though he could see that many of his previous friends hadn`t demonstrated these qualities, he still missed the camaraderie and busyness of being with them.

I sought out opportunities to pass the time and to hopefully lead to the building of new relationships. Despite his physical limitations, my son thought of himself as an athlete and felt very little interest in other milder amusements. This presented a challenge: most adapted sports are for horizontally-limited athletes where my son was vertically limited (think unable to use your legs vs unable to use the arm and leg of one side of your body). We persisted and encouraged him to at least be open to new experiences. He joined a drama group and successfully played his part in the final performance. He took voice lessons and learned to play the drums one-handed in case he might one day want to form a band with classmates! He joined a youth bowling league which I found to be one of the most welcoming of able-bodied sports. In addition, I kept in touch with friends he had made as an inpatient in rehab and invited other children over when possible (even if they were only cousins or my friend`s kids). I just wanted to make sure that he had every opportunity to interact with others and to practise improving his social skills. And then finally, I found a paraswim team which offered him total acceptance, support and friendship! It also allowed him to strengthen his weakened body and to once again achieve athletic success.

My son survived elementary school only to have to start all over again in high school which at best is a battlefield for even the most talented, strong and beautiful, let alone the less than perfect! He`s been called 'cripple' and had his limp imitated. He`s clearly been shunned from many of the social groups and has felt the pain of being on the outside. Nevertheless, he refocused on our old conversation around friendship qualities and persevered until he found some classmates fitting the bill. Although his friendships are almost exclusively female (and I think that male friendships will continue to be a challenge until they mature into adults where the number of goals you score or how high you can jump becomes less important), he has come to embrace the relationships he does have in his life which include family members, teammates, coaches, teachers and other community members that he interacts with on a daily basis.

I think my son and I have been forced to embrace and appreciate all of the friendships that we are so fortunate to have in our lives. Friendships come to us in all shapes and sizes and may not always be exactly what we have in mind when we start the journey, but they are what makes the journey worthwhile.


perseverance does develop character doesnt it.

I was very touched by how hard you are working to help your son and how hard he is working to make friends. My son is hemiplegic from birth due to his cerebral palsy and we have been worrying very much about his acceptance and ability to make friends.

It's very heartening to read about how you and your family are making friendships by growing what friendship means. Through your coaching and encouragement it sounds like you've given your son a wonderful gift: helping him understand what to look for in a friend and how to be a good friend.

You've said what's been on my mind and have not known how to say. Thank you for sharing your story and for your positive thoughts on how to move ahead. You sound like you've made a wonderful family. I wish you the very best.

I think David makes a good point about the value of talking about what it means to be a friend -- how we can be a good friend, what we look for in a friend. We have an integrated kindergarten here (half kids with disabilities, half without) and they actively teach about friendship and difference. This is typically missing in our school system.

I think there is a lot for all of us to take away from this piece about how we think about, and value, friendship. Thank you!