Ask the Experts

Q: How Many Friends Does My Child Need to be Happy?

Many children with ADHD are active, curious, and personable — but also unsure how, where, and when to make friends. If your child doesn’t have any close friends yet, keep in mind common maturity delays and use these strategies to build stronger social skills over time.

“We have raised my grandson, now nearly 11, since birth. He is medicated for his ADHD, but it’s getting more difficult to guide. His interests include bike riding, playing the keyboard, singing, and kayaking off our little yacht. He loves camping so he can meet people at the campgrounds, but sadly he has no friends — and no skills in that area.” — Tess

Dear Tess,

Your grandson sounds like an active and adventurous boy. He seems to have several interests and pursues them happily. You’re encouraging his curiosity while simultaneously letting him know that his safety and well-being matter to his family. For kids, with or without attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD), who are adopted or being raised by extended family, such loving limits are essential to fostering self-esteem and confidence.

For some kids with ADHD, like your grandson, making friends is especially challenging. Their executive functioning weaknesses in working memory, processing speed, focus, impulse control, or self-understanding commonly lead them to miss critical aspects of social dynamics. Whether it’s a facial expression, a quietly murmured comment or a hand gesture, they don’t catch these signals and respond in the same time frame that other kids do. Plus, sometimes they may respond inappropriately, which makes things harder. Peer interactions become stressful and anxiety-provoking.

Many kids with ADHD also struggle with understanding what friendship means. They do not fully understand that there is a range of people in a life: acquaintances, friends, best buddies and, later, significant others. There’s a difference between an acquaintance that you greet casually in the hallway at school and a buddy that you invite for a sleepover. Some kids with ADHD may simply not be that interested in engaging with peers — either because they’ve experienced rejection one too many times or they are just shy and isolated by nature.

Your grandson seems to be able to engage with other people. That’s an important sign: he’s aware of others and wants to interact with them. I’m guessing he’s not confident about his friendship abilities and may be developing in this area more slowly. Since the ADHD brain can mature up to three years behind neurotypical brains, it may help to think about him as a 7 year old in this area. Most 7 year olds can’t arrange social activities for themselves and actually need adults around either in the background or actively engaged to help facilitate things when they do have a friend over. Here are a few suggestions to assist your grandson:

  1. Observe his social interaction skills so you can start to improve some of these at home without being critical. When he speaks to you or his grandfather, does he maintain eye contact, struggle to pay attention to verbal instructions, or interrupt while another person is speaking? Pick one of these to focus on. I suggest saying “Your eyes on my eyes” for improving eye contact, asking him to repeat what you’ve just asked him to do, or giving him a pad of paper to write down his ideas. These interventions improve visual connections, listening skills and impulse control.
  2. Ask his teacher, camp counselor, or any adult who’s with him in academic or other situations to observe who he talks to, works with, or plays with. Find out which kids he sits with at lunch or plays with at recess. Get the names, phone numbers, and emails of their parents.
  3. Make a plan with the parent of one of these children to do a fun activity together as families. Often having more people around takes the pressure off one-on-one interactions and can ease how peers relate to on another. Whether it’s kayaking, hiking, watching a movie, or coming over to have lunch and bake cookies, after a while, the kids typically will get bored of being around the grown-ups. They’ll start to engage with each other, even going off on their own. If a mishap arises, you’re there to troubleshoot. This will help your grandson slowly build his social confidence and interpersonal skills.
  4. Some children really benefit from social skills or friendship groups at school or at a clinic while others find them unpleasant and unhelpful. I know several kids with ADHD who rejected these kinds of groups and preferred to join improvisational theatre or rock-climbing classes or an after-school LEGO club. There, they met and interacted with other kids outside of an academic setting. Eventually, with the type of parental help I describe above, they made a friend.

Be patient. This process may take longer than you think it will.

Many children need extra time to trust others and learn how to foster friendships. Right now, aim for developing one or two friendships: that’s probably enough for your grandson.

Do you have a question for ADDitude’s Dear Teen Parenting Coach? Submit your question or challenge here.

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.