Helping children with ADHD learn to get along better with their peers is very difficult. Research shows that medication and reward systems can cut down on their inappropriate behavior, but these changes don’t necessarily lead to greater peer acceptance or the formation of friendships.
Teaching these children social skills in isolation also hasn’t proven helpful. Even when children can perform a certain skill perfectly in a clinic or home setting, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll remember to use that skill in a relevant situation at school or with a friend.
Intriguing research by Amori Mikami and colleagues suggests that “parental friendship coaching” may be an important key to helping children with ADHD address their social challenges. In a 2010 pilot study, these investigators trained parents of children with ADHD to coach their kids on how to get along by teaching social skills, organizing playdates, and cultivating a positive parent-child relationship. This led to improvements in children’s social skills and friendships, as well as greater teacher-rated peer acceptance.
Effective help for children with ADHD who have social problems needs to address important barriers that stand in their way:
1. Positive Illusory Bias
Children with ADHD are often blind to their social problems. They overestimate their level of social skills and how well-liked they are, and they claim to be friends with kids who don’t consider them friends. Research suggests that this bias is defensive.
Possible Solution: Gentle guidance and support.
Feedback is essential for learning, but telling a child with ADHD, “You’re being a jerk!” is neither helpful nor kind. If we want our kids to hear our recommendations, we first need to show that we understand their concerns and believe that their intentions are good, even when they mess up.
Never criticize your child in front of others. Pull your child aside for a private conversation. Acknowledge your child’s feelings before offering any observations about difficulties. “It’s frustrating when the game isn’t going your way…” “You don’t like it when she does that…” Then, with the tone of someone sharing information with an ally, explain the impact of your child’s behavior on others. “She’s starting to get annoyed…” “He might think you don’t care…”
2. Negative Reputations
Reputations are slow to change. When children have a history of social misbehavior, their peers are likely to expect continued misbehavior. They may focus on mistakes, overlook positive changes, and refuse to give second chances.
Possible Solution: Focus on individual friendships.
It’s easier to win over an individual child than a whole group. One-on-one playdates are an important way that children build and deepen friendships. Help your child choose other kids to invite over who might be open to friendship. Kids make friends by doing things together. Plan a fun activity and keep the playdate short—between one and two hours—so it ends on a high note.
3. Problems Applying What They Know
Even when children with ADHD understand what they ought to do, they may not remember to do it in the heat of the moment or in a different context.
Possible Solution: Prompting and redirection.
Talking with children BEFORE they enter a challenging situation brings important information to the front of their mind. Rather than lecturing (kids with ADHD are masters at appearing to listen when they’re not!), prompt your child to tell you key strategies. You can ask questions such as “What do you need to remember to do?” or “What will you do if that happens?”
During a playdate, stay within earshot of your child. If you hear sounds of arguing or boredom, that’s your cue to step in casually to head off growing tension. A timely “Who wants a snack?” can give your child a chance to regroup and try again.
Social challenges can be crushing for kids with ADHD. If your child is struggling to get along with peers, it’s important to help him or her to move forward in positive ways, but it’s also important just to enjoy your child’s company. When peer relationships are difficult, having a warm, supportive relationship with parents can be very comforting to kids.
Hoza, B., Gerdes, A. C., Mrug, S., Hinshaw, S. P., Bukowski, W. M., Gold, J. A., … Wigal, T. (2005). Peer-assessed outcomes in the multimodal treatment study of children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 34, 74–86.
Mikami, A. Y., Lerner, M. D., Griggs, M. S., McGrath, A., & Calhoun, C. D. (2010). Parental influence on children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: II. Results of a pilot intervention training parents as friendship coaches for children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38, 737–749.