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Many families worry about their kids’ social lives. But when your child has a learning difference, you might worry even more. What happens when you realize that what looks like loneliness to you is actually not loneliness for your child? 

In this episode, hosts Rachel Bozek and Gretchen Vierstra talk with Ellen, a mom of three kids ages 11 to 16. Ellen shares the story of her son, a high-schooler who has a nonverbal learning disability (NVLD) and written expression disorder. Hear Ellen talk about why she always worried about her son’s social life. And find out how she stopped worrying and learned to let her son have the kind of social life that works best for him.

Episode transcript

Gretchen: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It," a podcast about the ins and outs…

Rachel: …the ups and downs…

Gretchen: …of supporting kids who learn and think differently. I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood.

Rachel: And I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer and editor raising two kids with ADHD. Today, we're talking about the challenge of figuring out if a worry you're having about your kids' social life is a "them" thing or a "you" thing.

Gretchen: Right. Because sometimes parental anxieties — maybe based on our own past experiences —make it hard to see clearly what's going on with our kids, especially when it comes to their social lives.

Rachel: Our guest today, Ellen, is mom to three kids ages 16 to 11. Her oldest, who we'll call Jay, has been diagnosed with written expression disorder and nonverbal learning disorder. Jay has never been super social, and the question of whether he has friends or enough friends, well, that's something that's worried Ellen a lot over the years.

Gretchen: And here's the thing: when Ellen was a kid, she was bullied and experienced a lot of loneliness. That experience, understandably, left her extra sensitive to the possibility that her own children might be bullied or simply lonely.

Rachel: We wanted to talk to Ellen about how we can learn to separate our own negative childhood experiences from the experiences of our kids. We're so grateful to her for sharing her personal story.

Gretchen: Ellen, welcome to "In It."

Ellen: Thanks for having me.

Gretchen: So, to start off, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your son, Jay.

Ellen: So, he's a junior in high school and he is a really great, pretty quirky, quiet kid who is very into band in particular, marching band. That's his big thing. But he is he's always loved school and he's really excited about that. He's taking a bunch of AP classes, which is stressful, but I have been told that I need to stay out of it, and he has it under control. So…

Gretchen: Got it. I love that he's a marching band fanatic. I was in marching band. I played flute. What does he play?

Ellen: He plays the sousaphone.

Gretchen: Nice.

Rachel: Yes. Also a marching band kid, clarinet. So, maybe…

Gretchen: Oh, fun, Rachel!

Rachel: …we can start a little side ensemble. So, I understand that Jay has some learning and thinking differences. Can you tell us what his formal diagnosis is and what those differences mean for him day to day?

Ellen: Yeah. So, he has a formal diagnosis of non-verbal learning disorder and also disorder of written expression. So, for the disorder of written expression, I would say he has everything that he wants to say in his head, but he can't figure out how to get it out of his head onto paper. It sort of dissolves. The words just dissolve. And for the non-verbal, I think for him, he has a really hard time with spatial visualization, with knowing where things are and this sort of very literal, not understanding some of the nuances of meaning that words and tones can have. And he has a tough time with tones of voice as well.

The best example of it was in ninth grade, maybe? I got an email from his teacher, his math teacher, saying that his computer had been broken, so he had to do an in-class worksheet and he had not done that in-class worksheet. And this was sort of shortly after we had gotten the diagnosis. So, I went and talked to him and I said "Jay, why didn't you do the worksheet?" And he was like, "I don't know. I didn't have to." And I was like, "But she said you did." And he said, "No." And I said, "Well, what did she say?" And he said, "Well, she said, 'If you don't have your computer, you can do this worksheet'." And I said, "Oh, did you think that saying you can do this worksheet also meant that you could not if you didn't want to?" And he's like, "Yeah, that's what it means." And I was like "Oh, OK. No. In that circumstance, what she really meant is you will do this worksheet." And so, it's that sort of thing.

Gretchen: I think we're going to shift the conversation now to the heart of the matter, the topic today, what it feels like when we're worried about our kids' social interactions when we think they might be lonely or not have enough friends. So, when did you start to worry about Jay socially?

Ellen: It probably started in third grade. I just noticed that he was, like he wasn't being invited to as many birthday parties and he wasn't inviting kids over to his house and he wasn't being invited to go over to anybody else's house. And I was seeing other kids his age, really, their social life sort of expanding, and it felt like his was contracting.

Rachel: And did you ever talk to him back then about your concerns that he might be socially isolated? Was that something he seemed self-conscious about?

Ellen: So, I didn't immediately talk to him, but I did sort of start at school gatherings and things. I started really paying a lot more attention and I would watch, you know, at any kind of gathering where there were other kids around, I would watch the interactions and sort of look for that kind of eye roll after somebody says something or they're like snicker that you don't see. And I never saw anything like that, which it's reassuring, you know, and I never saw any signs that he was being bullied or mocked or, you know, that kids didn't like him. He has people he eats lunch with, and I saw signs that kids did like him, he just wasn't anybody's, like, super close friend. One of the reasons that I didn't talk to him is that in fifth grade I was really pretty badly bullied.

And so, I spent a lot of my sort of third to maybe mid-high school, really feeling left out of things and like worrying that I was being left out and worrying that people, you know, not really kind of feeling like I had my place or my people and that was really painful and it was hard for me to sort of tease out which was me putting my experience on him and what was his experience. And so, I sort of talked it over with my therapist and kind of held back a little bit from talking to him.

Rachel: What does he seem to want socially these days?

Ellen: So, from what I can see and sort of in-between that kind of fifth grade up to now as a junior in high school, I have questioned him and asked if he wanted to have people over and asked if he was concerned about it.

And I have gotten more clear and more emphatic responses from him as he's gotten older of "I see everybody I want at school. And it is fine. And I don't want people to come over to our house. I don't know what we would do. And I'm not super interested and I'm tired and I don't want to go over anybody else's." And a little bit — he hasn't quite said it in so many words — but a little bit of like, "You're making me feel like there's something wrong by asking this. Which is...

Rachel: Yeah.

Ellen: …the last thing I want to make him feel.

Gretchen: And I imagine it must have been hard to watch because, as you said, it brought back memories for you, right? And also, I know, like having kids, right? It feels like your heart’s walking outside of your body all the time, right? So, when your kid's not getting invited to something or you just worry about it, it can be really difficult. How did you manage those feelings?

Ellen: It was really, it was really hard, and I had just spent a lot of time sort of focusing on, "I am not him. He is not me. He has a different experience. And what I can pay attention to, what I can know is how other kids are treating him at school, which seemed fine and how he is behaving, which seemed fine." Like he never said to me, "Oh, I didn't get invited to this birthday party" or "Oh, I wish I could go here." And he's not a super communicative kid, but I feel like there would have been something maybe. But it's really hard to trust that that's the case.

Gretchen: So, I know you have daughters, right?

Ellen: Yeah.

Gretchen: Is there anything in your experience of raising them that has made you think differently about this? Or do you tend to compare and then you have to stop yourself? I mean, what's it like, because you have three kids?

Ellen: Yeah, the girls are completely different. They are much more social and much more invested in seeing friends constantly. And I do, I do compare. And it's hard because they're really not comparable. You know, I think it can give you a little bit of a marker of where things are. But then I think having three children has made me realize just how completely different they all three are from each other.

There is one area where the comparison has been hard, as our middle daughter has been struggling for about a year, almost two years, with an eating disorder. And there have been really a tremendous number of awful things with that. But one of the things that has been the hardest is realizing that she can be in so much pain and we cannot see it at all that if she's not reporting it to us, we don't know. And so that, of course, calls all the things that the kids say into question, because, you know, if you can't tell by looking what's going on and you can't trust what they're saying, then how can you know?

And so, we have wrestled a little bit with "Is Jay really, really OK with this?" That has always been the question is, "Is he really OK?" And, you know, the honest answer is, I don't know, because you really can't ever know these things. But from everything that I can see and from how he behaves, he is OK. And so, I really cling to that.

Rachel: How did you picture his social life, you know, as it compares to what it is right now? And what do you sort of like do with that? Especially if he's like, "It's fine, mom."

Ellen: It's a really hard thing, you know, because I sort of envisioned a social life being hanging out with your friends and I sort of expected a more classic teenage. And he really does not have that. Just this last weekend was homecoming and I asked about homecoming, and he looked at me like I was crazy. He's like, "Why would I want to do that?" Which...

Rachel: But he was OK with not doing it?

Ellen: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, right. He was like, "What? Have you ever met me? It's not my scene." So, again, it wasn't my experience either. And I think you have these ideas of how your children are going to be and what they're going to be like. And they have their own ideas about what they're going to be. And that's really hard in some ways and in other ways, you know, it means they're comfortable.

And one of the things that has really helped in dealing with this is seeing how comfortable he is in his own skin, that he is just, he is who he is, and he's been that way since he was little. And he doesn't change it because it's not cool or it's not popular or it is cool, or it is popular. I mean, he's just, that's not a concern of his. And when I talk to other parents whose kids are having sort of more typical experiences, there's a lot of that and a lot of, you know, "Am I doing the right thing? Do they like me? Do they care about me?"

And I'm sure that some of that is going on internally, but it's not enough to raise it to the level of a major concern. It's just, he just is who he is and he's happy with it. And so that, that helps, and remembering that there is no real typical, that, you know, we have an idea of how social is, but it's from TV shows and movies. And for me, growing up in the eighties, like it is a really skewed version of how the world should be, so.

Gretchen: Oh yeah. Me too.

Rachel: Totally.

Gretchen: So, based on all this, do you have any advice for other parents or caregivers out there who might be feeling similar things, who might be looking at their kid thinking, "Oh, no, they're not social enough. They got to get out there more. I should force more playdates on them," you know, what's your advice?

Ellen: So, one piece of advice is to remember that more social comes with a whole lot more opportunities to get in trouble as they get older. So, it's not always a downside to not being super social. And the other thing is just that, trust your gut. If your gut is telling you that something is off with your child, trust it, but also take your own experiences into account because it can be hard to tell if your gut is telling you that your child is in trouble or that you were in trouble when you were a child, and that that can be hard. And so, you know, paying attention to that.

And then being OK, one of the things that I think we're all facing with the pandemic, but also just the way that our son has turned out — which is wonderful and we're thrilled, but it's also not necessarily what we expected — is being OK with grieving what is not because it's a lot easier to celebrate what is when you can acknowledge that like maybe it's a little sad that the one who is going to make up for all the issues that you had, and have the really great teenage experience, is not. And they're going to have their own issues, but hopefully not the ones you had.

Gretchen: Yeah.

Ellen: They're their own awesome person.

Gretchen: Yeah, that's awesome advice. I love it. I mean, I think I need to remember that sometimes. Thank you, Ellen, for sharing your story. I think it's going to be really helpful for other families to hear.

Ellen: Thank you for having me.

Gretchen: So, our conversation with Ellen today was about when we think our kid is lonely, but actually they're really quite happy with the way things are. But sometimes we talk to our kids, and we might find out that they actually are lonely, that they actually do wish they had more friends. And so, if that's the case you're finding in your own home, Understood does have some great resources and we'll definitely put some in the show notes. But Rachel, what are a couple of tips for families who might be wanting to help their kid not be lonely and find some friends?

Rachel: Well, one thing that's really my go-to is talking to the teacher, you know, especially if we're talking about grade school, elementary school, where the child really has one teacher for the most part throughout the day. Having that conversation and getting a sense of what the teacher sees sometimes that's so different from what we see and also really different from the stories that we get after school or over the weekend.

And another thing that I have also had a really good experience with and that I think parents maybe don't even always realize they can ask about is social skills groups at the school. A lot of schools offer some level of peer groups or kind of they treat it almost like a playdate. It's just kind of like get together with a few kids. Sometimes it's after school, sometimes it's during a certain period and they'll pull them out for a little while. And what I've seen, which is really nice, is they kind of rotate over the course of the year. So, lots of kids get to participate in this and it almost becomes kind of like this thing you want to do. And like...

Gretchen: Yeah.

Rachel: "Oh, who's in the social skills group now?" And it's a really nice way for kids to interact with other students who they either may not have ever hung out with before or just didn't think were, you know, quote, their friends. And, you know, all of a sudden, they're put into this small group of five or six kids and they find that they have a lot of things to talk about.So, you know, I've really found that to be a very valuable piece of school that I didn't even realize was there before the last year or so. So, you know, that's what I see in elementary school. But what about with older kids? You know, if you have a high schooler who may be going through some experience of loneliness?

Gretchen: Yeah. I mean, I think you're right. The school is a great resource. I think it's still OK to tap into the teachers and ask them what they're seeing and if there are groups that are happening at school. Sometimes there's a lunch group that may happen in teachers’ classrooms. The other thing is, you know, with high schoolers, there's lots of extracurricular opportunities and they're not always what you think, like a sport or debate.

Well, you know, in talking to Ellen, something that didn't make it into our episode but was an interesting point she brought up was that she did find a club that worked for her son. She encouraged him to join the D and D Club, the Dungeons and Dragons Club, and that's a role-playing game. And he loves board games and so it's a club that's working for his interests and that's a great way for kids to meet friends. And then one last thing I would say is, you can encourage your kid to volunteer.

So, outside of the classroom. Volunteering is great for lots of reasons. But one of the things is that you'll actually meet other people and possibly kids your age, maybe a little older, maybe younger, and sometimes you might meet an adult who could be a great mentor. So, volunteering is a great thing to look into as well.

Rachel: So, whether your child is lonely or just prefers being a loner, there are so many ways to work with it in a way that works for your child and also works for you.

Gretchen: You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network.

Rachel: This show is for you. So, we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at to share your thoughts. We love hearing from you.

Gretchen: If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Rachel: is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at

Gretchen: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Briana Berry is our production director. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music. And special thanks this week to Sara Ivry.

Rachel: For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening.

Gretchen: And thanks for always being in it with us.


  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

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