Is anything sadder — or more frightening to parents — than a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who has trouble making friends?
Take eight-year-old Josh, who stands alone at the edge of the playground, watching the other kids play. He'd like to join them but has no idea how.
Eleven-year-old Tina sits on the porch steps in tears. From the next block, she can hear the sounds of a birthday party to which she wasn't invited — even though she thought the birthday girl was her good friend.
Fourteen-year-old Tom spends all his free time alone, on his computer. No one calls him, and he calls no one.
"Parents fall apart crying about their child's situation," says Richard Lavoie, a special-education consultant in Barnstable, Massachusetts, and the author of It's So Much Work to Be Your Friend. "And it's never about academics. It's always about the pain of social isolation their child is facing."
It's hard to overstate the importance of friendships. Mary Fowler, the Fair Haven, New Jersey-based author of Maybe You Know My Teen and the mother of a son with ADHD, says that having close childhood friends can make "the difference between things going well, or becoming a hard-to-manage teen, dropping out, abusing substances, and being in trouble with the law." Experts say that having positive social relations in childhood is a better predictor of adult happiness than is I.Q. or academic achievement. "Friendships are not a luxury," says Lavoie. "They're a necessity."
Missing Cues, Lacking Skills
All parents worry about their children’s friendships. But for parents of children with ADHD, the concerns are especially pressing. Making and keeping friends requires hundreds of skills — talking, listening, sharing, being empathetic, and so on. These skills do not come naturally to children with ADHD.
“They miss social cues that other kids learn by osmosis,” says Carol Brady, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in Houston. “Having ADHD is like trying to watch six TV’s at once. While you’re deciding which one to pay attention to, some subtle information passes you by.”
Kids with ADHD have friendship trouble for all sorts of reasons. Some simply aren’t good listeners. Others drive away potential friends by their impulsivity — blurting out unkind comments, for example. A mom in Hawaii says her “mother hen” daughter alienates other children by trying to micromanage their lives. In some cases it’s unclear what the precise problem is. “I just think some kids have an air around them that other kids pick up on as a target,” says one mother, worn out from years of worrying about her child's awkwardness and social isolation.