Including ‘The Stepping Stone’ one of the strategic tools within the Multilevel Emotion Regulation Theory (MERT) developed by Simone de Hoogh with your own printable version of the FREE Explore your Friendships worksheet.
Friendship explained to children
Friendships are seen as essential for children to grow socially and emotionally. Based on what they have learned and been modelled by their parents, peer relationships help them to learn to solve problems, regulate their emotions, and seek help and support as well as understand how to trust and be trusted. As they grow older, children’s concepts of friendship grow and develop based upon their experiences and interactions with family members, other adults and peers.
Gross1 described five stages of friendship development, which are really helpful in explaining to your child how friendship development normally works.
Stage 1: “Play partner” – In this stage, a friend is viewed as someone to play with and to share toys.
Stage 2: “People to chat to” – progressing into this stage, friendships are no longer defined solely by play. Rather, a sharing of interests and conversations related to those interests become important.
Stage 3: “Help and encouragement” – In addition to shared interests, a friend is now viewed as someone who offers support, help and encouragement, although the child does not yet recognise the importance of providing support in return.
Stage 4: “Intimacy/empathy” – In this stage, the child now recognises the aspects of both giving and receiving support and encouragement.
Stage 5: “The sure shelter” – This final stage marks the realisation that friendship is a long-lasting and emotionally deep connection filled with mutual interests, respect, support and trust.
We can understand how our children develop friendships but also how being neurodiverse can influence friendship development. Issues that, for example, influence this development might be asynchronous development, introversion, perfectionism, intensity, craving and seeking (emotional overexcitability), and other overexcitabilities (OEs).
Many OEs are often experienced as ‘too sensitive’, or ‘too over-reactive’, or ‘too demanding’, ‘too volatile’, ‘too soft’, ‘too over-active’, ‘too manic’ etc. by others.
Children with extreme boundaries in the mind will need to receive structural guidance in how to adapt expectations to reality and how to form friendships.
Children with characteristics associated with mental health issues might also find it a challenge to find peers to relate with.
Stepping stones (tool)
When we are meeting a new person, the intellectual ability difference between you and that person defines how many stepping stones you need to add or ask for to make the communication easier going.
For example, if your child is explaining a game that he has come up with himself to another child, and the other child doesn’t get it, you have to teach your child to add stepping stones so the other child can understand.
On the other hand if your child wants to understand something new and is talking with someone who knows a lot about it, he might have to ask for stepping stones.
If you meet someone with whom you can skip the same number of stepping stones and still understand and follow each other, and enjoy the flow of the conversation, it means that you have found someone that you share the same intellectual ability with, and who might give you a huge pleasure.
The pool is tiny to pick from
Intellectual ability measured in the form of IQ (intelligence quotient) can be a helpful indicator in having a realistic view on what types of friendships will be available. Many highly able children do not meet a ‘real’ friend besides family members or children from friends of the parents, until at university or even later when they do their Masters or a PhD.
The chance of meeting someone who you can experience flow with when talking is 2-3 in 100 when having an IQ of 130-155, 1-2 in 1,000 when your IQ is 155 or above (Albert, 1971), 1 in 32,000 if your IQ is 160 or above and 1 in 2,590,000 if your IQ is 180 or above (Webb & Kleine, 1993). Furthermore, IQ doesn’t take into account if the other person is understanding of overexcitability, learning difficulties, twice-exceptionality, dual /multiple exceptionality or other extraordinary circumstances, for example having a chronic disease. On top of that there are factors such as whether you can accept each other’s political, social and personal views, and respect each other’s norms and values.
Soulmate friends are the friends that you can skip the same number of stepping stones with and feel safe with. Some people say that talking with someone that needs the same number of stepping stones within safety feels like flying.
Shining the light
Shining the light is an ability that people with emotional OE have developed and involves the fawn stress response. Everyone is familiar with the concepts of fight, flight and freeze in response to stress. The ‘fawn’ stress response was first identified by Pete Walker in 2003, and is characterised as an individual escaping anxiety by completely focusing on someone else and letting their own feelings of well-being depend on someone else’s. Often people develop the fawn response as part of their childhood conditioning, or perhaps it may develop later during teenage years when the desire to ‘fit in’ is very strong.
When we are shining the light, as part of the fawn stress response, we focus our undivided attention within a warm unconditional loving bath on others, giving them the feeling they are extraordinarily interesting and appreciated, while overstepping our own boundaries and ignoring our own needs.
If we have this ability we normally apply it in situations that are stressful, for example when meeting new people. This makes us feel safe by ensuring they like us, but ultimately it tends to confuse people by the mixed messages we send. It can also lead to a feeling of exhaustion in ourselves because we cannot keep up being like that constantly.
Shining the light is a very valuable ability when we are able to act outside the stress response, and can use this ability consciously and strategically in a situation where we think it would be helpful, weighing up the outcome with our energetic investment.
Shining the light can also be confusing to ourselves if we are not yet aware we are doing it. We might think to ourselves that we have encountered a soulmate, not realising it’s all our own energy that is making the relationship work and that it might not be reciprocated in the long run. This might lead to an uneven friendship in which we might become resentful when we finally become aware that we are investing more energy than our friend. We may not realise that we have from the onset created this exchange of our attention for the friends approval within the fawn stress response, and set up a dynamic that might get in the way of an authentic connection.
What we need in friendships
We all have different needs in friendships. Our needs are informed by or are a reaction to what is on our runway, that is our circumstances and workload, and our experiences and personality.
For example, if we have experienced physical abuse, a friend who has a tendency to slap us on the back won’t make it through the first stages as he or she will have triggered our stress response before that moment already. In this case we need a friend who’s absolutely respectful of our personal space or able to talk it through and change their manners.
What do we need to move from this first click (or not) between a new person and ourselves towards a satisfying friendship or relationship?
Often this question is answered with words like ‘love’, ‘trust’, ‘reliability’ etc. However, these words not only differ for each person, but also in meaning for different individuals.
Exploring and unpicking those words until we have a list of measurable qualities is really helpful.
We can, for example, ask ourselves about ‘trust’. What do we mean by ‘trust’ besides a gut feeling? In what ways do we notice that there is ‘trust’? What are the measurable qualities in ‘trust’ – qualities that preferably we can check in normal situations? For example, if we don’t want friends to gossip about us, we can watch to see if this possible friend is gossiping about others, if not she or he might be worthy to go to the next stage.
This will enable us to assess possible friends and prevent us from investing energy in people who in fact don’t have the basic qualities needed by us to be considered as a friend. It will guide us towards the people who are really worthy of our attention, energy and care in the hope of developing a long-lasting friendship.
Type of friendships
There are three basic types of friendships: occasional – people you have pleasant interactions with, but are not especially close to, such as neighbours, classmates, children you meet on holiday; interest-based – people you share a common interest with, for example, you might go to the same sports club, you have the same hobby, you both enjoy playing chess; and the soulmate-based friendship.
Soulmate-based friendship is mostly craved for by children, teens and (young) adults with the intensity associated with overexcitability, however realistically they won’t come across many others with whom they can develop this type of friendship, purely because the pool is small.
Soulmate-based friends you recognise because you can skip the same number of stepping stones and still follow each other, you don’t need to ask for extra stepping stones, nor give them. If you can talk with someone on the same intellectual level and together skip the same number of stepping stones you will experience flow, which makes communication a real joy. Among parents and between parents and children normally the same number of stepping stones are needed, which makes communication a pleasure, with the exception of course for the difference in experience or expertise in certain areas.
Being realistic to your children and yourself, the craving for a best friend might not be answered before going to university. Look at your own life, when did you meet your best friends? This might be a good indication for when your children will probably meet theirs.
Growing awareness about friendships/relationships
The FREE Explore your Friendships worksheet is a helpful tool to use to talk with your child or teenager about the different connections that one has in life together. This will help them become more aware of how he/she experiences the (important) people they meet in life. You can do one for yourself as well. Doing so can give your children insights about where you stand and also models how to take a proactive approach to both our relationship with ourselves and with others. However, it may not be appropriate for you to do it alongside your child, and you need to feel comfortable doing it in their presence and also be clear that it is helpful. However, even if you choose not to share it with them, doing it yourself can offer valuable insights that might help you support your child in the exercise, as well as support your own relationships with others.
New connections start on the fringes of the map (on the worksheet). The more others prove they are worthy of your friendship and give you energy, or whatever else you think is important, the more you allow them to come closer to you.
You can also use this tool to help children become aware of the connection between their own feelings and allowable behaviour e.g. who to embrace when you meet them and who not.
1 Gross, M. (1998) The “me” behind the mask: Intellectually gifted students and the search for identity. Roeper Review 20 (3), 167-174.
© 2021 Simone de Hoogh, senior consultant and founder of PowerWood.
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