Q My daughter has ADHD and it's affecting how she makes friends. How can we help with the social issues that come with ADHD?
This is a great question. People often assume that ADHD only affects going to school and doing homework, but kids with the disorder actually struggle with social interactions a lot more than kids without ADHD. Kids who have the inattentive subtype of ADHD are more likely to be ignored by their peers. They are more likely to be outside the group, or, if they’re inside it, they probably won’t be piping up or joining in very much. The kids with the hyperactive/impulsive or combined inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive subtypes of ADHD often get rejected by their peers. These are the kids who are unintentionally intrusive. They might jump in at inappropriate times and take over the situation, or they might just talk too much. Eventually their peers start to find these behaviors aversive and actively avoid these children.
When it comes to helping with social issues, one of the best things parents can do is set up what we call structured play dates. To do this you need to set clear expectations about what good behavior looks like. For example, ahead of time you and your child should discuss how a guest should be treated in your home. Explain that when they are playing together, your daughter should let her guest pick the game they are going to play. She should also be paying attention to whether or not her guest is having fun. Kids with ADHD often neglect their playmate’s social cues, so try to get her to notice whether her guest looks bored or looks like she is having fun. She can even ask her guest, “Are you having fun playing this game?” If the guest does seem bored, your child should suggest that they pick a new game. You can also help by prompting these good social behaviors during the play date and then fading into the background.
Without hovering too much, you should also make sure to praise your daughter for the things she’s doing really well. You can do this subtly during the play date and then again afterward. Likewise, after the play date you should make a point to discuss the things she can work on for next time.
Structured play dates should be kept short, since shorter is generally better when kids are learning new skills. Of course, during a shorter play date there will also be less opportunity for anything to go awry. For a younger child, half an hour should be plenty; you can go a bit longer for an older child. This method works very well for kids all the way through fifth grade. You can even use it with some sixth graders if they’re open to receiving feedback from their parents. Of course, kids will be more motivated to accept coaching if they recognize that social interactions are a problem for them.
Sometimes teachers and assistants at the school will also be open to helping with social issues. A thoughtful teacher might pair a child who is struggling socially with another student with whom she already has a positive rapport. Teachers can also help by prompting certain good social skills and then praising children when they follow through.