Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: My Son’s Peers Have No Interest in Him, and Vice Versa

For this teenager with ADHD and autism spectrum disorder, adolescence doesn’t click naturally — friends are hard to come by, hobbies are few and far between, and compounding school responsibilities are overwhelming. Here, find advice for encouraging more social confidence and autonomy at school.

Q: “Our 14-year-old son is a bright, intelligent, kind, and thoughtful boy with autism and ADHD who gets highly anxious and has very few friends. His best friend is his 7-year-old sister and our dog, who both offer him unconditional love and loyalty. He feels safe at home and has no desire to go out, meet friends or have contact with anyone on social media. He loves reading and will become so absorbed in a book that he’ll devour it within a day. He’s completely disorganized and his grades at school vary depending on whether he likes the subject, but he has the capability to perform at a high level when he feels engaged. He’s a black belt in Choi Kwang do, he recently started volunteering at a local food bank, and he’s earning the Explorer rank in Scouts, which he probably would’ve given up if we hadn’t encouraged him to keep going. He plays tennis and bridge. He has a brilliant sense of humor and all my friends think he’s great. But his peers have no interest in him and treat him like he’s insignificant. So I have two questions: How do we get our son to form better, healthy relationships outside of his family and have the confidence to make friends? And how do we get him to take ownership of his studies so he wants to take responsibility for his own future and strive for good grades?” -MordenMum, [email protected]

Dear MordenMum:

Your son sounds like a wonderful young man with several interesting hobbies. You mentioned that he’s been reaching beyond his comfort zone by volunteering at a local food bank, becoming an Explorer, and taking more responsibility with your dog — all of which shows that he is feeling more comfortable in his own skin. Often, it can be tough for kids with ADHD and a co-occurring autism spectrum disorder to take risks and try new things. With encouragement like yours, his willingness to try new things indicate that he’s experiencing a new level maturity.

You ask two important questions that reflect common issues for kids like Matthew: making and maintaining peer relationships and being more accountable about his grades. Let’s look at each one separately.

Helping Kids with ADHD and ASD Navigate the Complicated World of Teen Relationships

When your child was younger, you helped him form peer relationships. You fostered contact with other children at daycare, in preschool, or during playdates. As kids grow older, their friendships (and romantic endeavors) occur more and more outside of their parents’ knowledge and supervision.

Kids with ADHD, who may miss facial and physical cues, frequently struggle with making meaningful and lasting peer connections. They may lack the empathy and self-control that allow them to contribute to rewarding friendships. Learning social skills directly would certainly help them, but many teens resist doing so. It’s confusing to know when and how to step in when your child experiences peer challenges.

[Free Download: What Are Your Teen’s Weakest Executive Functions?]

Since your son is engaging in activities that require him to interact with peers, he is practicing his social skills. Though his efforts may be awkward and minimal, he’s still out there trying. You can help improve how he reads and interprets social cues, and what he says to people, by role-playing with you and other family members.

Try these tips:

  1. Point out body language and facial expressions at home and ask about the messages they convey: “Your sister was talking about her math test and you interrupted her to ask about using the computer. What is her face (or body) showing you about how she feels?” This will help him later in moments with other people.
  2. Use family dinners as opportunities to practice conversational skills. If your college roommate visits for a night, give your son some sample questions to ask like, “What type of job do you have?” Then, teach him how to translate those questions into peer interactions: “What after-school clubs are you in? Do you like to play tennis?” These rehearsals set him up for the real thing.

Improving Responsibility and Follow-Through with High-School Academics

The ADHD brain matures up to a three years more slowly than the neurotypical brain. It’s important to remember that, in some areas of executive functioning, your son will behave more like an 11 year old. You’ll see this socially but also in terms of self-awareness. Since the ADHD brain is a Now/NOT Now brain, talking about the future could seem like talking about life on Pluto for your son. When you add the ASD challenges he also faces, setting goals, identifying the necessary steps and work to achieve them, may simply probably beyond him at this time.

[Free Friendship Guide for Kids with ADHD]

Instead, create goals that relate directly to the present or what I call “the next present” — what’s clearly in view. This will help him learn about setting and accomplishing goals in general. Sit down and talk about the grades he would like to achieve. Write these down and ask him what needs to occur to make his goals a reality. Outline the steps and supports that would assist him. While supporting his ideas, also share your views about what you think he is capable of doing. Some kids with ADHD aim low so they’re not disappointed with themselves; others prefer to aim high as a way for motivation; some are just unrealistic about what they can actually do.

Try these steps:

  1. Use mutually-agreed upon incentives to help your son with his persistence while building his competence and self-confidence.
  2. Together, make a list of privileges and/or activities, he would like to earn and how he could obtain them.
  3. Create a weekly time to check in on your agreement, discuss his progress and make any necessary changes. This will also teach him about trial-and-error learning and build his flexibility—two executive functioning skills that are often challenging for teens with ADHD and ASD.

Be patient. Your son needs extra time and practice to develop social skills and academic responsibility. His recent forays show that he’s headed in a good direction, and with your support, he’ll eventually make a few good friends and figure out some life goals.

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The opinions and suggestions presented above are intended for your general knowledge only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your own or your child’s condition.