Does your child need to make friends? Maybe just a single pal to sit with in the cafeteria, or hang out with after school? Friendships, especially close ones, can be heartbreakingly elusive for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD). Maybe you have a son who lacks self-confidence, or is too shy, to make the initial approach. Perhaps you have a daughter who puts off other children with her apparent selfishness or spaciness, or with her inability to read the subtle social cues that govern interactions between kids.
If your child has social problems, you probably do what you can to help. You arrange play dates. You sign him up for a friendship group. You encourage her to participate in sports, clubs, and other extracurricular activities -- anything that might hook her up with like-minded kids. You do everything to help your child learn the skills needed to thrive socially. But what else can you offer?
How about summer camp?
Yes, summer camps are supposed to be all about having fun. But a growing number of camps are teaching kids social skills in addition to crafts, hiking, and canoeing. In fact, of the more than 12,000 camps in the U.S., there are roughly 1,700 .
The benefits of ADHD/LD camps -- typically staffed with specially trained counselors — can be remarkable. Often, youngsters who show up at camp without a single close friend go home a few weeks later with several. What's more, the social skills they learn at camp help them make and keep friends all year long.
Interdependence is key
Laurie L., of Burlingame, California, has two ADHD sons who have been transformed by the social skills they picked up at an ADHD/LD camp. Before camp, her 14-year-old had only a single confidant. Her 15-year-old, impulsive and chronically impatient, lacked even that. That wasn't surprising, since his two favorite words seemed to be “shut up.”
But after five summers at Camp Buckskin, a wilderness camp for ADHD/LD kids in Ely, Minnesota, her younger son has a wide social network. Her elder son gained several friends and now has a steady girlfriend. Laurie says there's also been a remarkable change in her boys' relationship. Once aloof, they're now best buddies.
How did summer camp transform the two brothers? By encouraging them to show respect to one another and -- perhaps more important -- by requiring them to participate in activities designed to foster camaraderie and cooperation. A case in point was the challenging Outward Bound-like, seven-day canoeing expedition her older son went on during his fifth summer at Buckskin. "If I didn't get along with the other kids," he says, "I'd be dead."
Laurie's son learned, in a tangible way, how cooperation enables the members of a group to achieve an important goal. It's something Tom Bauer, Camp Buckskin's director, strives to instill in all campers. "Some of these kids, if you let them, will sit with a book all day," he says. "But you can't sail through life self-contained like that."
Learning to reach out
There's a reason some ADHD kids are so distressingly self-contained: They're used to failing in their attempts to make friends, so they've given up trying. Rather than risk rejection, they learn to do things -- however unhappily -- on their own. "In their heart of hearts, these kids would prefer to be interacting with others," says Bauer. "But they view themselves as less worthy, and they lack the skills to initiate those interactions."
For many children, joining a group is even harder than reaching out to an individual child. But at most ADHD/LD camps, camp counselors take an active role in breaking the ice. That's certainly the case at The Learning Camp, an academically oriented camp in Vail, Colorado. "If we see a child sitting alone," says the camp’s director, Ann Cathcart, "we'll call her and a few other kids together to play checkers." As the weeks go on, she says, even the shyest kids get better at joining activities -- and the counselors step back a bit.
A similar strategy is used at Camp Buckskin. Bauer explains: "If a group of kids is playing hacky-sack, but one kid is hanging out alone, we'll go over and casually chat with him. We'll say something like, 'What's going on?' or 'How is your day?' Then we might say, 'You don't seem too happy. Would you like to play with those guys?' Usually, the child will give an excuse like, 'I'm no good at hacky-sack,' or 'They don't want me to play with them.' Then we might say, 'Do you want me to go over and play, too?' The child will often respond, 'Would you really do that?'"