Should I disclose my child’s challenges before visiting friends?

Bringing kids along on social occasions can be complicated. Things that entertain adults aren’t always entertaining for kids. Visits can get even more complicated if you have a child who learns and thinks differently.

Let’s say your child is expected to do things that are sometimes a challenge — say, sitting still at the table, taking turns, following directions, or making transitions without getting upset. Any of these can make everyone pretty uncomfortable. Especially you.

Of course friends don’t need a complete rundown of your child’s strengths and weaknesses before you visit them. But you do want to anticipate something happening.

The benefits of being open

Being open is a good idea for several reasons. For one, it’s just good manners to warn your host ahead of time if you think there might be a problem. Also, a warning can actually prevent some undesirable things from happening.

Steve Dickstein, MD, a pediatrician and child and adolescent psychiatrist, recommends that you offer your hosts a heads-up “in the same way you’d warn people in advance that your child has a nut allergy.”

Are your friends planning an ambitious dinner party, but your child really only likes eating grilled cheese and plain pasta? You’d want to let them know ahead of time, so their feelings don’t get hurt. If your child can sit at the table only for a short period or is easily frustrated, let them know that, too. Explaining these things helps your friends manage their expectations and gives everyone a better chance at getting along and enjoying themselves.

Setting some ground rules

  • Think about time limits. It can be hard work for kids with attention issues to be on their best behavior. It’s smart not to push kids past what’s reasonable for them. Let your friends know how long you’ll be staying, and tell your child, too. Knowing there’s a fixed end in sight can be reassuring.

  • If some topics should be off-limits, let your friends know. Has your child been seriously struggling in school? If so, it might be best if your friends don’t put your child on the spot, like asking for the full scoop on how school is going.

  • Set social expectations. If your child has attention issues, be on the lookout for activities that require too much patience. Bring other things for your child to do. If your friends expect kids to disappear and leave lots of time for adults to socialize, let them know that your child might need you during the visit.

Talking to kids in advance

Your kids know the rules at home. But in the excitement of visiting someone else’s home, good behavior can be forgotten. Before you head out, always have a conversation about how you expect your children to behave. Don’t shy away from specifics.

It’s also a good idea to ask your friend about any house rules that you should be aware of. Some people expect kids to be on their best behavior. Others are more casual. “As a parent you never want to put your children in a situation where they’re set up to fail,” explains Dickstein.

Keeping kids occupied

Are you traveling with a child who will need to sit in a car for any length of time? Rachel Busman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, advises packing a bag with multiple activities, particularly if the child has a lot of energy and a short attention span. “Don’t think just four or five activities will be enough,” she says. “You could be through those things before you even get on the highway.”

Busman also recommends planning for breaks, even on short trips. “Kids who get restless or have difficulty managing their impulsive behavior might really benefit from getting out of the car and running around for a few minutes.”

Planning ahead for some peace and quiet

Are you going to a party? If your child is easily overstimulated or sensitive to things like noise and crowds, Busman recommends arranging for another room that’s designated for breaks. There should be an unused room at any party, so ask your friend ahead of time.

Thinking about the menu

Gatherings focused on eating can put a lot of pressure on kids who are picky eaters or who have sensory processing issues that limit their diet. If you’re going to someone else’s house for dinner and you know the menu will be a problem, Busman suggests packing something your child will eat and bringing it with you.

Reassure your child ahead of time. Explain that there will probably be some different foods there. But you’ll be bringing some things that you know will work. You can always add, “It would be great if you could try something else, too.” Exploring new foods is good for kids, but it shouldn’t be the most important thing.

Socializing with other kids

Just because kids are approximately the same age doesn’t mean they’ll be automatic friends. But they should still try to get along — with adult support if needed.

Some kids get easily frustrated when things don’t go their way. If this is the case for your child, offer encouragement and a reminder that sharing and being polite is important. It’s always helpful for you to remind your child that you’re there and can help if there’s a conflict the kids can’t settle.

Bringing children along on a visit with friends might present some challenges. But it can come with some rewards, too. Being open with your friend and doing some prep work ahead of time helps ensure success. The most important thing is that everyone has fun.


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