By Dr. Steven Richfield
Opposite-sex relationships among older teens with Asperger’s syndrome present both opportunities for growth and areas of special challenge. Parents experience understandable concern about how events will unfold considering the complexities involved.
The use of social media, potential for near-constant contact through texting, and implications of physical affection raise parental angst and teenage expectation. But there are ways to provide sensitive navigational assistance to adolescents with Asperger’s.
Unabashed directness about the details of relationships plants the seeds for teens with Asperger’s to discuss issues with openness. When parents model a comfortable attitude when addressing kissing, mutual dependency, possessiveness, sex, and other awkward topics, the adolescent will find it easier to do the same. Use opportunities when watching TV and movies to label various dating behaviors. Expand upon the themes portrayed by asking questions and offering information that may lead to their questions.
Keep in mind that teens are likely unaware of what they don’t know, and therefore don’t know what questions to ask. By explaining how, as with most things in life, there is much to learn about dating, the discussion can flow like an educational exercise rather than a judgmental one.
Emphasize the importance of building a “firm friendship foundation” that can support the heavy emotions that can be triggered within opposite-sex relationships. Provide a specific timetable, such as a few months, for such a foundation to build and give examples of how opportunities to display trust and reliability are all part of that period. Following through on plans, showing kindness, expressing interest, and positively dealing with disappointment are some of the “foundation tests” upon which to elaborate.
Pinpoint the pitfalls to watch out for, especially as they relate to Asperger’s syndrome. The tendency to become overly preoccupied, misunderstand meanings, and jump to negative conclusions can easily be triggered within the emotionally charged interactions of dating. Reassure the teen that, by being on watch for these developments, he or she can prevent them from causing unnecessary pain or disappointment. Emphasize the need to suspend a reaction when these or other dating challenges are activated.
Stress the need for teens with Asperger’s to select a “dating coach,” preferably a parent, whom they are willing to turn to in order to review relevant details within their relationship. Explain that the purpose is to ensure that circumstances remain on an emotionally healthy and socially appropriate course. Use these discussions to deepen the teen’s knowledge about the importance of balance, role of give-and-take, degrees of self-disclosure, and levels of trust and intimacy. Tie these factors to situations that arise so that the teen develops his or her own relationship compass.
Dr. Steven Richfield is an author and psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA. He has developed a child-friendly, self-control/social skills-building program called Parent Coaching Cards. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 610-238-4450. To learn more, visit www.parentcoachcards.com.