Social development worries? Yeah, we’ve been there.

By Allison Chrien

Worried about how social isolation and missing out on typical life experiences might be affecting your child’s mental health and social skill development right now?

Yeah, we’ve been there. In fact, my husband and I set up a pretty solid camp there about four-and-a-half years ago.

In the late winter/early spring of 2016, our son was living his best life as a fun-loving 7th grader when he suddenly developed crippling stomach pains. Like, seriously crippling. I have a particularly vivid memory of heading to a soccer game when he just stopped walking not 50 feet from our car, sat on the curb, and could do little more than struggle to hold back the tears as I sat helplessly next to him doing the same. He eventually had to quit his beloved soccer team and started missing more days of school than he was able to attend.

Long story short, it took a full year to find a doctor to tell us there was actually a very simple test for lactose intolerance. Apparently, his previous doctors felt it was unnecessary to share that little nugget of information, trusting that the two weeks we tried to avoid dairy was enough to judge…

It took a full six weeks of eliminating dairy from his diet for him to finally feel 100% pain-free. 

And it took another several months for us to learn all the silly little tricks like asking restaurants if they use real butter to make their scrambled eggs, seeing milk listed in the cookie dough ingredients is fine but milk in the chocolate chips is not, and how there are special drops you can add to dairy products that will break down lactose within 24 hours.

(And, yes, I’m happy to report that those drops do even work on homemade favorites like mac-and-cheese and cheese fondue.)

It’s worth noting that before the pain started, this was the kind of kid who called you his friend if he knew your name. And he wasn’t generally the instigator of plans because he enjoyed his downtime, but he was learning to be one because he also loved hanging out with his friends.

So we stressed over the fact that during that year and a half of valuable preteen time, he drifted away from his friends as they grew out of the habit of seeing each other on a regular basis. 

And we stressed over him missing major rites of passage like band concerts and class parties and the 8th-grade field trip to DC and… you know… everyday life at school. While all the other kids his age bonded through shared experience, he trudged his way alone through an experience nobody else could understand. His main points of contact with the real world were his family, the school guidance counselor, and a general cadre of medical professionals.

To counter this, we placed him in social situations where and when we could (trips to the store, visiting grandparents, helping me with one of the various community events I’ve had my hands in organizing, etc.). And we talked A LOT about what he was going through, how he was coping with it, and the importance of engaging with the world at large for his mental well-being. 

All of that might have annoyed the living daylights out of him but, you know, we’re his parents so that’s our job. And I feel confident that these efforts made both that hurdle and the next a little bit easier to jump.

You see, our son had spent the last good chunk of his middle school experience doing his homework mostly on his own and in his own time. We couldn’t get an official IEP as long as there was no official diagnosis, but the guidance counselor worked with his teachers to get assignments sent home and sometimes even excused. Once we finally got a firm diagnosis, well, we just needed a little time to get his diet all sorted out, then the school year was almost over anyway and it would be summer…

Which brought us to his freshman year of high school.

Now, two things here:

  1. I don’t know what it is about freshman year, whether it’s just a matter of learning to adjust to high school expectations versus middle school or if it’s a matter of being new teens in a new school or if the teachers actually feel that it’s important to make it a trial-by-fire kind of year, but our experience between our two boys is that freshman year comes with a mountain of homework which then adds a mountain of stress. 
  2. Remember how he got through middle school…?

We started the year off almost giddy st the thought of him returning to a totally typical routine just in time to start high school. As it turned out, while he’d made his way through his experience so far with his shoulders pretty darn straight overall, those same shoulders were starting to feel the weight of the world crashing down on them. And he crashed with it.

Once again, I found myself sitting helplessly beside him, both of us unable to do much more than struggle to hold back the tears because he’d suddenly developed crippling anxiety that stopped him from walking into the school.

At least this time we were sitting inside the car instead of on the curb. 

And since this time we knew the actual cause of the problem, his new guidance counselor was able to help us create a plan fairly quickly. He started going to school for some of his classes (classes like science and gym that are easier in person), taking the rest through an online program, and scheduling regular conversations with the clinical counselor at the school to help him deal with his anxiety as he learned to adjust to the increased responsibility.

So while we stressed about him still not having a typical experience, at least we had a plan that helped him dip his toe back into the social waters of everyday school life. And before we knew it, it was time to schedule his sophomore year classes and he was ready for them to be all in school.

Ahh… his sophomore year… his one normal year…

We were still a bit worried that he wasn’t hanging out with friends outside of school but according to his older brother (who was a senior at the time), we had nothing to worry about because “that kid’s totally fine, he’s super social and will NOT stop talking on the bus – you guys are just being overly paranoid.” 

Yeah, well, that’s our job. So we kept doing it. We kept placing him in social situations where and when we could and talking about what he was going through. We just did it a little less often. And, really, he seemed fine. I’d say he’d simply fully embraced his downtime and never learned to be the instigator. 

Truth be told, he comes by that honestly. When he was young, his tendencies leaned more in the direction of his dad (who might thoroughly enjoy his downtime but has no qualms about being the instigator and is a pretty outgoing guy), but now he’s more like me. I’m totally content to be at home all day and need to be reminded to go out and about in the world. Social anxiety and I actually had some fairly heavy battles when I was younger but we’ve come to an accord in the past decade or two. And it’s not so bad to be me. I like it all right. 

So my husband and I pretty much packed up and moved out of that worry camp we’d been living in because we realized the kid’s all right, too. And when COVID-19 shut down the schools during his junior year, we laughed in the way you do when you need to find the humor in crazy messed-up situations. 

Me: Seriously?!? Dude, you were just not meant to have a normal school experience at all!

Him: Hey, at least I got one good year in!

Yep, we laughed pretty hard, actually. For days. 

That’s why, after all he’s been through, we’re not too worried about him missing out on those typical senior year experiences. It sucks, sure, but he’s missed such things before and made it through laughing. He’s still that fun-loving kid, just a much taller version. And this time, he’s not alone. The whole world is going through this thing together and in ways that others will understand. He’ll always be bonded with kids his age through this shared experience.

So for us, as we continue to go through this crazy messed-up situation together, we’ll keep placing ourselves in social situations where and when we can and we’ll keep talking about how we’re coping. I feel confident that those efforts will make this hurdle and any others yet to come just a little bit easier to jump. 

Allison Chrien works from home (separately together with her husband, son, dog and cat) and helps people place themselves in social situations where and when they can through her website