Recently, in response to a post about play dates, I got the following question from a reader: “What is the appropriate way to handle situations when other kids do not want to play with your child? When your child expresses an interest in playing with another child, and you ask the parent if their child wants to play with yours, the response is, ‘My child doesn't want to play with your child.’ It's extremely difficult as a parent to hear that, and how do you explain that to your child?”
Rejection can be a heartbreaking situation for both parents and kids. But if parents can be strong for their kids, they may be able to improve the situation. The first step is to see if you can figure out any specifics about what going on.
Before talking to the child about it, I’d do a little detective work. Some parents might be telling you this in an open way, one that lets you get more information. It’s best to be direct yet non-defensive here. Ask the other parent if anything specific happened to cause this situation. The answer might hurt your feelings, but you could find out what the other kids are thinking and saying about your child. And that gives you the opportunity to help your child make things better.
From my experience, I find that kids with poor social skills are frequently perceived by their peers as “mean” or “unfriendly.” Remember, for neurotypical children, social skills are for the most part instinctive and automatic. If a neurotypical child attempts a friendly conversation and doesn’t get the expected friendly response back, she’s likely to feel hurt and rejected, not go into a detailed internal analysis of differing social skills abilities and neurodiversity issues. It’s going to be nearly impossible for your child to re-educate the crowd on this issue. Instead, I’d be practical here. Coaching your more socially awkward child on the basics of friendly interaction can go a long way toward making them seem more friendly. Many kids will overlook and even enjoy a quirky behavior pattern in a peer, so long as they don’t feel rejected. Teaching simple scripted greetings and tips about staying on topic may do wonders for your child.
I also hear kids say that they don’t want to play with other kids because those kids are “boring.” Many children on the spectrum have a deep satisfaction with their own special interest, and it can be the greatest source of joy for them. Unfortunately, if peers don’t share that interest, it will be tough to initiate play dates. One solution is to have a more structured, away from home play date. A joint trip to a park or museum may be enticing to a friend, and the Pokemon cards can be taken out later in private. Another option is to see if your child’s interests can be highlighted to the class. I remember when an unpopular classmate was suddenly in great demand when the other boys realized he was willing to share his winning Tick Tack Toe strategies.
Finally, it’s important to consider social hierarchies at school. Many parents hate to hear about this, and it doesn’t seem fair, but children’s social status is rigidly defined. Kids with social skills issues don’t recognize this, and may be attempting to play with others who are “out of their league” socially. Being popular is a highly political and strategic undertaking, not one that will be easy for any kids with social issues. It’s better to set your social sights on kids who are more approachable, and less in demand. Frequently, these are the kindest and most empathic kids, and the most likely to give your child a chance. Teachers can be a great resource in identifying potential playmates.
As far as talking to your child about this rejection, I’d be supportive and empathic, yet honest and direct. Kids on the spectrum may not be able to identify their feelings or other’s, so I’d say something like, “Emily said that she didn’t want to play with you, and I was sad to hear that, because I knew you wanted to see her. I wonder if you feel sad too.” (Don’t worry about getting your child’s feeling right, he can correct you if he wants and say, “No, I feel really mad!” and you’ve both learned something.) After some time on empathy, I’d move to problem solving. If you know the reason for the rejection, share it gently with your child. This can feel so mean and unfair, and I’m sure your instinct as a parent is to protect your child. But remember, your child has to make his own friends; you can’t do it for him. And he can’t solve a problem if you haven’t told him what it is. After sharing the facts you can brainstorm some solutions. Be careful not to badmouth the rejecting child. It’s not going to help your child’s social standing if he repeats the mean things you’ve said in private.
Finally, keep trying for play dates with other kids. Your child doesn’t need every kid to be her friend, sometimes one is just enough.
Patricia Robinson MFT
I'm a licensed therapist in Danville, California and a coach for Asperger's and ADHD nationwide. I work with individuals of all ages who have special needs, like Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADD, ADHD, and the family members and partners of special needs individuals.