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Hi, I'm Michelle Garcia Winner, Founder of Social Thinking®. I not only do a lot of writing and speaking around the world on the subject, but I still see clients in my clinic every week that I'm here. I'm seeing a multitude of clients, and today I want to share with you about what I've been learning, kind of my own Aha! moments. What I really enjoy about working with clients is how much they teach me. The work of Social Thinking continues to evolve, and it evolves because of how myself and my colleague, Dr. Pam Crooke (and some of our other colleagues), keep learning.
This week's Aha! is about working with a thirteen-year-old who is really struggling to understand why he needs any help at all (“I don't have a problem. Why do I have to come here?”), as well as how to get underneath that and start to help him with his own social learning experience. I'm going to give you a few tips on some things that I've been doing with him throughout some weeks, and my big Ahas! this past week when I worked with him.
So, he is thirteen-years-old and currently in seventh grade. Like so many, he is pretty grumpy about showing up here. The first day that I worked with him, I had him fill out the Strengths and Weakness Chart that I've created (free article on our website called “Teaching Your Students About Their Strengths and Weaknesses”). Using the chart in that article I had him figure out what his brain makes easy for him, what his brain is okay with, and what his brain finds hard to learn. And in the journey of him filling this out, he told me that his brain makes it okay for him to make friends, or at least be friendly. He is able to enter into groups and start talking to folks. But what his brain makes very hard is keeping friends That was interesting because it wasn't me throwing concepts at him; he volunteered that information after talking about a number of things his brain did pretty well. That's a great starting point!
The next thing I did in treatment was to work with him on identifying his own social goal, along with his action plan to achieve his goals. This process has to do with social-executive functioning. As we looked at his Strengths and Weakness Chart and identified what his goals were, he volunteered that his goal was to make friends. Not only would he like to make a friend, but he would like to keep a friend; that was the big goal. So, I wrote down “Friend,” and then he made sure that I wrote down “Friends”- he wants to keep multiple friends.
About three weeks into treatment, I brought out the Friendship Pyramid, a framework we talk about in our book Socially Curious and Curiously Social. I showed him the Friendship Pyramid, which starts with greetings and then acquaintance, followed by how do you meet up with somebody at school to have lunch? The next level is how do you meet up with somebody that you're becoming friends with away from the environment in which you met him or her? And then, what is a bonded friend? Is it someone you rely on to hang out with, versus a close friend who is someone with whom you share your fears and desires?
We made this in the shape of a pyramid because you should greet more people than you have close friends. In fact, the research shows we only have one to three truly close friends at any time in our life. I work with my students on the Friendship Pyramid, and in some of our On Demand modules, I talk about how you actually teach moving from greetings into friendship. But here was the first Aha! He said, “You know, you're missing the whole bottom half of this. You need to have a Pyramid of Dislike.”
But here was the first Aha! He said, “You know, you're missing the whole bottom half of this. You need to have a Pyramid of Dislike.”
So this past week we developed the Pyramid of Dislike. Download the blank Pyramid of Dislike handout—but don’t teach it until you’ve taught the Friendship Pyramid. Learn about the Friendship Pyramid in the On Demand module Strategies for Teens: Friendship Pyramid, Finding Motivation & Add-a-Thought or in our popular book Socially Curious and Curiously Social: A Social Thinking Guidebook for Bright Teens and Young Adults.
In the journey, I asked him about working in a group. He said, “I don't like working in groups because I like to stay in control. When I'm in a group, I can't be in control, I don't like that. Then I asked about friendship, and he said, “Well, it's kind of the same thing with friendship, I like to be in control.” This is where it got tricky. His parents shared with me that when he did develop friends, he often developed a friendship with a very meek person that he could try and control.
When we looked at the Pyramid of Dislike, he started identifying levels. He spent a lot of time, and he was very clear with the specific levels in his Pyramid of Dislike. He even went so far as to identify scenarios where those he considered friends would get the” dislike” treatment and vice versa:
- The first thing he identified was a neutral place. This is where there really weren’t any responses to the people around him.
- The next thing he identified (in an upside-down pyramid template) was a level where “you just glare at someone, you don't talk to them, just glare when you dislike them.”
- The next level he identified was unkind interactions, where kids would say mean things to each other, and sometimes this involved using swear words as they walk by each other.
- Another level was when it began to get aggressive, and I think that this was certainly this kid’s Pyramid of Dislike (of course, there will be girls’ Pyramids and ones for different personality types as well). However, for this particular kid, he would sometimes become aggressive with others (perhaps some pushing), and that was the next level.
- In the following level there was fighting, and the next level (6) there was a place where he just hated someone so much that he wanted nothing to do with that person.
It's weird because he discovered that double-crossing means that you make fun of someone you dislike (but also kind of like) who is higher on your Pyramid of Friendship. As we were going through this process of categorizing relationships, he acknowledged situations where his treatment of someone wouldn’t necessarily line up with how he felt about them overall. For instance if he were trying to manipulate someone, or double-cross them as he put it, he would for that moment treat them as a friend when in fact he didn’t like them at all.
That got us exploring and we now have double-cross on the pyramid. In this case he is treating someone as though he likes them momentarily, but there are still instances where he dislikes someone he would normally like. Wow, this is complicated! Now remember what he said earlier, that he likes to stay in control? Here was my big Aha! - this kid loves being in control.
Not all clients I see feel the same when it comes to control. Some of the research in emotions and what we're learning from our clients is that when it looks to us like a person is really out of control (in the “red zone” where behavior in public can become outrageous at times), that it may not truly be the case. I was working with one of my adult clients on strategies for staying out of the red zone, when he looks at me and says, “I am the most in control when I am angry, that's when I feel the best. I am so in control when I'm super angry.” And I thought to myself, Whoa, I had never thought about that.
Meanwhile, I am working with this 13-year-old who's telling me he doesn't like being in groups because he loses control or doesn't have control. It's hard to make friends when he doesn't have control. Well, now he really has a lot of people on his Pyramid of Dislike, and then it occurred to me, “Aha!, he is so in control when he's angry”. He’s so in control with dislike, he knows exactly what to do.
As we’re going through the Pyramid of Dislike, we occasionally talk about the Friendship Pyramid, and he says, “Why do you make a big deal about meeting up with people? Why do you make a big deal about being with people and sustaining that?” That was another Aha! He was so content sitting in dislike, which for him meant no time was spent on developing the social competencies needed to make a friend. It's much easier to dislike someone insofar as it’s easier to define the momentary interactions. You can pass by someone, swear at them, and you've been accounted for on campus, at least people know your name. This particular individual prides himself on being the most hated guy in school, and that validates him. What the research shows is if no one knows you, talks to you, or even recognizes you, that can actually be even more traumatized than being mistreated and treating people badly (because my student knows how to treat people badly).
The next session we will be looking at how much time he is staying in the Pyramid of Dislike. If his goal is to make a friend, how do I help him through being vulnerable, so he can learn how to spend some time with others and actually find some longer-term satisfaction in being with someone and learning about them? The reality is that he lacks the social competencies to have a conversation that's not about himself. Before we address that however, we’ve got to help him become motivated to be a friend. Right now, he is so motivated to sit in “dislike” because he is so in control. That's the purpose of therapy help him stay in control while he learns how to share the control.
So, that's my Aha! this week. I hope it's helpful to you as you think about how all of this comes together. Signing off! Michelle Garcia Winner, Founder of Social Thinking. Good luck with your work!