Mastering Difficult Moments

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Friendship Struggles of Teens with Learning Disabilities

A mom is heartbroken over her teen's dwindling friendships.

QUESTION

Dear Dr. Levine,

My 16-year-old daughter has learning disabilities. Most people don’t notice this until they really start talking to her. She grew up in a closely-knit neighborhood and she had the same friends since preschool.

As she has gotten older, the differences have become more apparent and her friends began to spend less and less time with her. She has a difficult time finding anyone to hang out with on the weekend and is really upset by this and can’t understand why.

Her very best friend has completely cut her out since eighth grade and will not even return her texts. She has made a few new friends in high school but they don’t seem to have a lot of time for her outside of school either. None of these girls are mean to her; they just don’t call her up or make plans with her.

I don’t know how to help her out. She babysits in the neighborhood all the time and all the parents rave about how wonderful she is. She is really a lovely girl, dresses and looks the same as the other girls, but she has a sweet naiveté about her that doesn’t seem to mesh with the other teens. I think she has trouble keeping up with their conversations, inside jokes etc.

How can I help her out with this? I am heartbroken watching her feel heartbroken. I would really appreciate your advice.

Signed, Heartbroken Mom

ANSWER

Dear Heartbroken Mom,

It is not uncommon for teens with learning disabilities to have problems making and keeping friends. Of course, the nature of these problems varies widely depending on the individuals and their disabilities.

For example, teens with learning disabilities are more likely to lack self-confidence—or may have a hard time reading social cues, such as knowing when to speak and when to listen.

Given that I don’t know your daughter’s precise situation, here are a few thoughts:

1) Teens have a hard time accepting people who are different, with or without learning disabilities. It is also natural that friendships change as children enter adolescence. Bear in mind, as long as your daughter has one or two friends in high school, she doesn’t necessarily need to be “popular” or have a circle of friends.

2) Be a good listener. It sounds like you are very sensitive to your daughter’s feelings; continue to allow her to vent her problems and frustrations.

3) Apropos of these conversations and your own observations, can you identify the specific social deficits that seem to interfere with her friendships? If so, you can role-play and coach her so she can learn new skills.

4) To help nurture after-school and/or weekend friendships, are there any areas (e.g. in sports, arts of crafts, theater) in which your daughter excels? If so, encourage her participation in some planned activity or non-academic class so she has opportunities to meet new friends in a small setting.

5) If you aren’t sure what is interfering with your daughter’s friendships, if she seems depressed, or if you don’t feel comfortable addressing these problems on your own, you might want to speak to a counselor who specializes in learning disabilities. Such an individual can work with you and your daughter to assess her specific deficits and identify strategies to overcome them.

6) Finally, although you might feel like you are the only one with this problem right now, you are not alone. it might be helpful to find a family support group in your community with other parents who are struggling with similar problems. The guidance counselor at school may be able to help you find such a resource.

Hope this is helpful. It sounds like your daughter has so many nice qualities that these high school years may turn out to be the worst.

Best regards, Irene

Mastering Difficult Moments