How to get on with your friends: co-regulation, repair and relationship skills

Bright Eyes has a regular friend at school now. He's a nice little NT (neurotypical) kid who's not necessarily on the 'outs' with others, but not necessarily on the 'ins' either and for some reason he and Bright Eyes have hit it off since late last year. It's useful that the friend (I'll call him B) lives in our village and can bike and walk around fairly independently, so he often makes his way down to our place and stays for a while.

Bright Eyes has some of the friendship regulation skills down - he always checks with B about what he wants to do, he does things with B that he wouldn't necessarily choose to do on his own, he thinks of things that would be good for his friend, and (shock horror!) he shares his half hour of computer time with him. So some of it is going well. It's when things disintegrate that things get a little bit choppy. But, as you'll see, we're definitely making progress.

Late last year I took both boys, plus my younger son and his friend, to the pool. The four of them were playing with some float toys, and then B had an idea to play a throwing game. It started out pretty well. All four were fairly regulated, working through the rules together and taking turns. 

As time went on, though, I noticed that the game was starting to fall apart a bit. The two younger boys were doing a bit more of their own thing. They were a bit bored with B being in charge and were getting restless. B kept wanting to play though, so his voice got louder and his throwing got a little more strenuous. That was when I noticed that Bright Eyes was not staying regulated. I think he was overwhelmed with the constancy of the game, the noise of his friend's voice, and continual repeated instructions about what to do.

After a while, he just didn't do it, or he did it wrong, and he got angry. B got frustrated, and then the other two boys came back into the game. The friend of my younger son told Bright Eyes he shouldn't be so angry, so Bright Eyes got angry at him as well. Name calling ensued, and the final outcome was me calling Bright Eyes over to sit with me to calm down for a bit.

"He's bullying me," he said to me. Now, I had seen it all. B was not bullying. He was frustrated and angry, which is different. So I said this to Bright Eyes, but he was not interested in my interpretation of events at all and directed the name calling towards me, so I let it go and sat there with him quietly. The other boys went off to play something else entirely different, and there was no more regulated play between Bright Eyes and his friend B that day.

A few months later, and B was over at our house again. He's a sport-mad little kid, which is not so great for Bright Eyes, who would quite happily sit on a sofa all day and night if he could, but I think it's great because B manages to get him out to play tennis and cricket and riding around on the scooters. This time they asked if they could go down to the tennis courts which are not far from our house. We said 'sure' and sent them off. 

Half an hour later, the two of them reappeared, Bright Eyes red faced and angry. He came into the house first, with B following after. B disappeared to find Bright Eyes' brother to play, and I had a chat to Bright Eyes.

Me: "You okay?"

Him: "No! B was mean to me. He called me an idiot."

Me: "While you were playing tennis?"

Him: "Yes! Where else? He was mean."

Me: "Oh. That doesn't sound good. Why do you think he did that?"

Him: "I don't know, do I? How would I know?"

Me: "Well, maybe you did something to him as well."

Him: "I didn't do anything!!"

Me: "It's sad when friends don't get on. But we can sort it out."

I called B over and asked him (kindly) about his version of events. It seemed that at some point Bright Eyes wasn't hitting the ball properly, that B called Bright Eyes an idiot, and Bright Eyes hit him, possibly with a tennis racket, although I couldn't quite figure that bit out, nor which came first, the insult or the hitting.

Me: "B, I'm guessing that when you called Bright Eyes an idiot, you were actually pretty frustrated. Because I know you two are friends normally."

B: "Yes."

Bright Eyes: "Yes, I wasn't hitting the ball properly."

B: "You weren't hitting it not properly - it's just that it was out all the time."

Me: "You're good at sport, and that would be frustrating for you, right?"

Bright Eyes, "Yes. He takes lessons. And I'm not good at tennis."

Me: "B, you know, don't you, that Bright Eyes has trouble dealing with stuff that goes wrong, right?"

Bright Eyes nods furiously, and B nods too: "Yes, I know."

Me: "So, probably, instead of calling him an idiot, you need to say something like, 'I feel really frustrated when you hit it out'. And then maybe the two of you need to try to find a different game that you both can play. And maybe, some apologies are needed right now, on both sides."

B: "I'm sorry I called you an idiot."

Bright Eyes: "And I'm sorry for all of my part of it too."

Me: "Are you guys friends again? What do you think?" (They both nod, and smile at each other. "So, what do you want to do now?"

Bright Eyes, shrugging and still in misery mode: "Nothing!"

When I suggested that an iceblock can sometimes get friendships back on track, I saw B's eyes light up. Bright Eyes, on the other hand, was unimpressed.

Him: "No. It's too hot. I don't want to go outside again."

B: "Yes, Bright Eyes, but an iceblock can help you cool down too."

Bright Eyes, perking up: "Oh, you're right, B. You've got all the good ideas. Good thinking."

We bought iceblocks, they played for a little longer and then they parted as friends. 

It's so good to see this co-regulation and relationship repair going on at the pace Bright Eyes can handle, just one on one with a child who is mostly gentle, and still a peer, and who can challenge Bright Eyes to get out of his comfort zone. It's great to see the progress in Bright Eyes in being able to accept being guided into repairing the relationship, and taking his share of the responsibility as well. I'm hopeful for even more relationship skills to build over the course of this year. 


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