Will my teenager choose the right friends? Will he get into a good crowd? Will my child be able to balance academic demands with social activities? Our children’s friendships help to define them as adults. But what if there are no friendships to be had?
“Typical” parents perseverate on these questions as their children move from school year to school year. My daughter, Amanda, has Down syndrome, as well as celiac disease and type 1 diabetes. When she was little I focused on therapies, milestones, doctor appointments and school meetings. Making friends was not at the top of my list of concerns.
Besides, when Amanda was in preschool and elementary school, social gatherings were abundant. There were play groups, whole-class birthday parties, park outings. She was able to keep up with the bouncy house activities, bowling parties, arts and crafts fun, and gymnastics maneuvers.
As she has moved into her teen years a social gap has appeared, and widened. Amanda is now 15. She attends most of her classes with her eighth-grade peers. The “typical” children in her school are very nice to her. She is greeted in the halls. She participates in class projects. Amanda feels she is part of the group. But there are no “get-togethers” scheduled after school with friends. There are no sleepovers. There is no “Are you going to the football game?” “Do you want to go to the mall and movies?”
She hears these plans being made. She listens at the lunch table as her classmates discuss their after-school plans. She wants to be doing these things, too. She wants friendships. She wants to be just like everybody else.
Amanda is not the only teen in this predicament. At her birthday party last year, I chatted with a couple other moms, and their children with special needs felt the same way.
Parents of typical teens can encourage their children to try a sport team or school club to look for peers with the same interests. This is a starting point for conversation and an atmosphere for group bonding. For kids who have articulation issues or cognitive delays, these avenues provide an activity to add to their day but rarely lead to true friendships.
We mothers brainstormed and decided to start a group called Teen Club Rocks that would meet once a month. The gatherings, we agreed, would need minimal parental intervention. We would try to keep a balance between boys and girls. We would rotate planning responsibilities. We would keep the group to no more than 15 members.
In the past year the teens have bowled, played miniature golf, had a game night, a bonfire, dinner and movie, and swimming parties.
At our first few meetings, the teens looked to the parents for guidance. This was to be expected, as many of these kids have adults with them during most of the day at school. While this is great for keeping them on track in academic settings, it tends to inhibit socializing.
As the months progressed, the group members have become more comfortable with each other. Cliques within the group are forming. The teens are feeling ownership of their club. The need for parental assurance is gone.
“I like to do fun things and be with my friends,” says Maggie Byrne, when asked why she thinks Teen Club is important.
“Because like any other kid, I want to meet new friends and have fun,” adds Jared Downs.
Amanda asks every month when Teen Club is and what they will be doing. She marks it on her calendar and reminds me of it daily.
There is diversity in our teen group. We have a range of ages, abilities and behaviors. What all the kids have in common is acceptance of one another and the desire for camaraderie. They work together to achieve the goal of having a good time together.
Isolation and depression are issues for adults with special needs. We hoped to combat this by initiating this circle of friends. We will have to wait and see if this will carry into adulthood.
“As our kids get older, it becomes more important for them to have a place where they belong,” says Jared’s mother, Randi. “No one should be alone. Much of the joy of life is the relationships we have, and Teen Club Rocks provides an opportunity to foster those friendships.”
What I didn’t anticipate was the bonding parents would do as well. Our group not only enhances the social opportunities for our teens with special needs. It has created an outlet and support group for us parents. We need that. Teen years are tough. If ever there was a time for chatting with parents in the know, it is now. Transitioning, puberty, sexuality, middle and high school issues and sibling situations are all conversational themes.
“It’s been a great opportunity in a relaxed environment,” says Terri Colone. “Not only for the teens, for the parents, too. Parents can feel isolated as well, and there is no pressure or expectations or judgment.”
As parents, we focus on our children’s needs and put our own on the back burner. Every now and then what starts out as doing a good thing for our children turns into a good thing for us as well. When that happens everybody wins. Teen Club truly does rock.
Deborah Cavanagh lives in Manlius with her husband and two children. She has written for local organizations
supporting children and adults with special needs and publishes the blog www.momofmanyneeds.com.
Photo above: Michael Davis photo