My 11-year-old son has a friend who used to go to his school, a few years ago. Not only did he switch schools, but his family moved farther away and still this kid calls our house nearly every weekend for a play date. The problem is that my son does not enjoy playing with this child at all. Although smart and articulate, he can also be loud, obnoxious, rude, and will often not listen when asked to stop any of his annoying behaviors. His parents like to joke around about their son's ADHD (I'm no expert, but if there is a kid deserving of this label, it's him). While I'll occasionally cave and set up a play date when he calls, I'm usually faced with the awkward task of making up an excuse so my son does not have to endure another unpleasant play date. In other words, I lie. I tell him my son has a birthday party, family visiting, a class to go to, he doesn't feel well, etc. I lie to let him down easy because his disappointment is palpable. I also lie so that my son doesn't have to. I feel like I'm setting a bad example. I've tried screening his calls. But then he will literally call every 10 minutes until someone picks up (he is usually calling while unsupervised because his parents are doctors, one of them is working while the other is sleeping after a night shift). I thought he would eventually lose interest and stop calling but the calls keep coming.
How can I help my son break up with this lonely and frustrated child?
Dear ADHD Intolerant:
So let me get this straight. A kid who may or may not have an undiagnosed psychiatric disorder, and who your son doesn’t even like, calls your house every 10 minutes, nearly every weekend? But you haven’t changed your number yet, or alternatively, ripped the phone out of the wall? Actually, I’d say you’re pretty ADHD Tolerant.
You’re certainly more tolerant than I am. Granted, I’m the woman who once turned my terrace garden hose on the twenty somethings who were loudly partying on the rooftop of their brownstone next door. I was postpartum. Whatever. It worked out. It’s a lot harder than you might think to hit a rooftop with a stream of water from a garden house, twelve stories down. Especially in a light breeze. And the twenty somethings didn’t care, anyway. They just turned up the music and kept right on dancing, excited to be cooled off by a refreshing magical rain shower.
Perhaps you want me to tell you to stop being so tolerant. Well, I’m not prepared to do that. I do hear your worry -- that your little white lies are setting a bad example. I get that. Generally speaking, I’m a big proponent of directness and straight talk. Lies and indirectness are unreliable and ineffective forms of adult communication. But this is a child. A pretty young child, at that, who may be emotionally disturbed. Or fragile. Or as you put it -- in kinder and less pathological terms -- just frustrated and lonely.
In another sense, of course, your white lies are also setting a good example. They are showing your son that it’s important to be kind and generous, concerned and tolerant. It’s worth telling him that as he gets older, he will need to learn how to speak directly to people he doesn’t like. It’s also worth pointing out that you are lying to spare the child’s feelings, not to avoid your own inconvenience. But at 11 years old, adult directness is not appropriate. And I think it would be too harsh, even for your son to come out and tell the kid the friendship is over. God knows, he'll probably get enough of harsh rejection when he's older.
That leaves one strategy: You need to be much more direct -- and effective -- with your white lies. Right now, you’re plugging up one leak at a time. The faucet is still dripping. My advice is simply this: Tell the boy that your son can only have a play date every few months. Say your son is very busy with activities, trying to make more time for other friends, or has to spend more time with his grandparents. If the boy -- or whoever is supposed to be watching him while he digitally water boards you over your phone line -- would like to pick a date, you’d be happy to set it up. For several months from now. But then, when you schedule it, make it clear he shouldn’t call again before that date. You get a lot of calls. You get tired of answering it. And unfortunately, your son is booked solid until July.
Ideally, this will solve a number of problems at once. For the lonely kid, it will still give him something to look forward to. It may even work like that anxiety therapy, where patients are only allowed to obsess in discrete blocks, for ten minutes at a time. In other words, it may help him learn to control his feelings. For you, it should mean fewer phone calls. If it doesn’t, then you have cause to address his behavior more directly – though still in an impersonal, strictly logistical way -- with his parents.
A new schedule will give your son more time to recover between play dates. I realize this may not immediately solve the bigger problem. This kid is the Brillo pad of playmates. But over time, with better lying, this friendship will fade away. I really believe that. Eventually, the too-busy-to-parent parents will get divorced, or take new jobs. Or the kid will switch schools, and find hobbies. Maybe he’ll even get some therapy, more exercise, medication if that’s needed, and some other friends. For his sake, I hope that happens. And ADHD Tolerant, I know you do, too.
Best of luck!