Big Kids Have Big Problems
For young children, a lack of social skills may not be a serious problem. If a six-year-old says or does something untoward, for example, other children may ask why but are unlikely to take offense. What’s more, young kids typically have a hands — on “social director” — a parent or caregiver who solicits not only play dates but also stays on hand to make sure they go smoothly.
But as children get older, social interactions become more complicated — and children with ADHD fall behind. This was certainly true for Jay Edmond, a 15-year-old from Burlington, North Carolina. Jay’s mother, Jodi, says that his odd comments and disruptive behavior became too much for his peers. “Kids he had been friends with started steering clear,” she says. “By middle school, he was a marked kid. The more the kids pushed him away, the more outrageous his behavior got.”
What about teenagers? “By high school, parents of all kids need to be backing off and letting them manage their own relationships,” says Rick Zakreski, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Shrewsbury, New Jersey. “In high school, there usually are so many possible activities that they’re likely to find a niche. Keep an open mind. Don’t judge his group by appearances. Goth kids may look scary, but they may actually be less into drugs than the more clean-cut kids.”
But don’t back off too far: A recent study of nearly 12,000 seventh- through twelfth-graders discovered that teens who have warm relationships with their parents — where they share activities, talk often, and are affectionate with each other — also tend to have good friendships.
Parental Involvement is Key
Parental involvement is essential if kids with ADHD are to make and keep friends. That can mean something as simple as helping your child initiate conversations and “supervising from the window,” as one parent puts it. It can mean making the effort to drive your child to another town to visit a potential friend. It can mean attending a parents’ workshop given in conjunction with your child’s friendship class, or talking to your child’s therapist.
“Some of the hardest work I do is with the parents of ADHD children,” says Avie Lumpkin, an ADHD coach in Alameda, California. “They are good parents, and they have worked hard, but they may be trying all the traditional parenting things, which don’t work with these children.” Kids with ADHD often have little sense of how they’re perceived by their peers, and they commit social gaffes without realizing they’ve done so. Another kid will give them a shove, and they’ll fail to realize that calling the kid a “jerk” a moment ago had anything to do it. Or they’ll have no idea that a game broke up because they kept ignoring the rules.
To help these children, Lavoie urges parents to conduct what he calls “social autopsies.” These are meetings in which the parents and child discuss what went wrong, why it happened, and what the child could (not should) do differently next time. Be as sensitive and as tactful with your child as you would be with a close adult friend; too much negative feedback can damage your child’s self-esteem. Of course, if your child has had a successful interaction, be sure to congratulate him.
According to Michael Thompson, author of Best Friends, Worst Enemies, one of the most effective things parents can do is to set a good example. In addition to socializing frequently with friends and relatives, that means making an effort to forge friendships with the parents of your child’s peers. Thompson also recommends enlisting the support of your child’s teachers, and staying connected to the community through clubs, religious communities, and so on.