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The challenges of romance for teens with LD

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By Melinda Sacks

How parents can help

"There is a balance of skills you need to navigate relationships successfully in the teen years," says psychiatrist Damon Korb, whose private practice in Los Gatos, California, focuses on families whose children have learning and social difficulties.

"Relationships are all about reading social cues and understanding another person's perspective. If you don't automatically do those things, it can cause trouble initiating and sustaining relationships."

The necessary skills for creating and keeping relationships come naturally for most of us, yet they are numerous. From developing the ability to read someone else's body language to understanding how far away to stand from someone during conversation, when to talk and when to listen, and even how much of one's personal feelings it is safe and appropriate to reveal at any given time, the nuances of interacting with other people can be overwhelming. For kids like our son, these social skills are not as developed as for many of his peers. And teens are not exactly tolerant when someone acts in a way they deem unacceptable.

For these reasons, Dr. Korb points out, it is important for parents to do what they can to help their children learn how to have successful relationships. He offers some helpful suggestions, which can be initiated well before the teen years, but can continue to help during adolescence:

  • Model what it takes to have a good relationship: Let your child see you do nice things for other people, especially your spouse. Say, "Mom looks like she needs a break, I'm going to do the dishes today," or "Dad is tired so I am going to be extra quiet so he can take a nap." Such simple examples of kind, nurturing behavior provide good models that your child can copy and apply to other situations.
  • Demystify your child's challenges: Explain in clear language as early on as your child can understand in a meaningful way what his strengths and weaknesses are in the social realm. Refer to yourself first, and use such language as, "I have trouble looking at people's eyes when I talk to them, and you seem to have trouble asking people questions." Then be sure to point out what your teen is good at with statements such as, "You helped Grandma feel better when she was sad because you talked to her so nicely." These kinds of statements help a child identify what he needs to work on without feeling like he's a failure in all social situations.
  • When your child asks for help or is frustrated, help him view the situation as an opportunity for self reflection. For example, you might ask him, "Why do you think things didn't work out with your friend yesterday?" Or, "Do you know someone who is really good at making friends? What can we learn from her?"
  • Use television or movies to find and discuss examples of male-female social interaction - good or bad. Ask your teen, "What do you think that guy was thinking when that girl said that?" Teaching moments are everywhere, says Korb.

Teaching social skills in the early years

When dealing with younger children, taking "field trips" to observe and learn about human behavior is another fun and instructive approach therapists recommend. Consider going to the mall for a "people-watching trip." Who makes good eye contact? What happens when a boy touches a girl's arm as they are talking, or when a girl puts her arm around a boy? Who is good at making other people laugh? How does he do it? Observe social space, Korb suggests, to help kids know how close to stand to others and how loudly to talk. As a guide to how much and what kind of instruction to give your child, consider his developmental age rather than actual years.