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How ADHD Impacts Your Child’s Communication Skills – and 11 Ways to Help

ADHD directly affects virtually all aspects of communication. Here, learn more about the link, and how to improve communication skills for kids with ADHD.

Kids arranging blank multicolor speech bubbles
Credit: Malte Mueller/Getty Images

We don’t talk enough about ADHD and its impact on communication in children – which is surprising when we consider, for one, that the following core symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are directly tied to communication:

  • Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly
  • Often blurts out answers
  • Often talks excessively
  • Often interrupts or intrudes on others

Exacerbated by other aspects of ADHD – like executive dysfunction and emotional dysregulation – communication problems are common, and often result in misunderstandings, reactivity, conflict and stress at home, and problems in school.

To address these challenges, we can follow a three-step approach to improve communication skills for kids with ADHD:

  • Understand ADHD’s link to communication problems
  • Treat and support ADHD (and any co-occurring conditions)
  • Implement strategies that are known to facilitate language skills and communication – from instilling a love of books to streamlining verbal instructions.

Why Communication Problems are Common in ADHD

Executive Dysfunction and ADHD Symptoms

It’s helpful to think of ADHD as a disorder of executive function (EF). EFs are the cognitive processes that allow us to focus and concentrate, plan and organize, manage information, and regulate our behavior and emotions. Many people don’t realize that ADHD impacts all these self-management skills, many of which are also involved in communication.

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To manage a conversation, we have to pay attention and sort through information that comes in, hold it in mind, organize it, and come up with a response, all in real time and without interrupting the other person. We must also keep calm and measured in our replies, which is difficult if we don’t like what we’ve heard. EF deficits complicate all these processes, especially in children with ADHD, who may be developmentally behind their neurotypical peers.1

EF deficits and other ADHD symptoms – like difficulty sustaining attention, distractibility, and forgetfulness – may also affect the “intuitive” part of communication, like picking up on social cues and the unspoken rules of socializing. It’s not that ADHD impairs social judgment, but that it undermines a child’s communication skills because they miss details of what’s going on around them.

Research on ADHD and Language

Studies also show that ADHD is associated with communication problems and certain speech features:

  • Children with ADHD exhibit a higher incidence of language delays compared to neurotypical peers.2
  • A 2017 review of more than 20 studies found that children with ADHD scored lower on measures of overall, expressive, receptive, and pragmatic language than did neurotypical controls, though the exact causes behind these problems are inconclusive.3
  • Children with ADHD are more likely than their neurotypical peers to exhibit disruptions in speech flow (pauses, repetitions, revisions).4

How to Support Communication Skills for Kids with ADHD

1. Treat ADHD. A comprehensive intervention plan for ADHD – which may include ADHD medication, behavioral therapy, and other supports – will help with communication problems on a foundational level.

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2. Have your child screened for speech-language delays, given high incidence rates in ADHD. Depending on your child’s needs, they may qualify for speech and language therapy and other services in school.

3. Talk to your child – a lot. Parent-child verbal interaction and a rich language environment is vital for language development.5

4. Immerse your child in books. Reading at an early age supports language development and literacy.6 Reading, of course, is also linked to academic success.7

5. Limit screen time. Studies show that screen time may disrupt language and literacy skills in children.8 In this day and age, it’s important to set strict-enough screen limits to allow children the time and space to develop communication skills and a love of books.

6. Grab your child’s undivided attention to start a conversation. Don’t shout instructions across the room or ask questions as your child is focused on something else, as it will surely lead to confusion and misunderstandings. We know that ADHD executive dysfunction makes it difficult to regulate focus, so give your child time to direct their attention to you.

7. Speak concisely and pause often to let your child process information and gather their thoughts.

8. Divide requests and information into smaller parts. Following multi-step instructions requires extensive working memory. Keep steps simple to limit frustration on all sides. Consider whether multi-step instructions are necessary at all. Could a written checklist help? Can you leave some information for later?

9. Ask your child to repeat what you said to gauge comprehension and reinforce working memory. Or ask them: “What did you understand of what I just said?”

10. Focus on bonding. A positive parent-child relationship can reduce conflict and facilitate open, respectful communication. Show interest in your child’s interests, and look for easy, joyful experiences with them. Be present and listen intently when your child speaks to you. (That means phones away.) Attention is generosity, as the saying goes, and your child will be inclined to share if they feel heard.

11. Normalize communication repair. ADHD or not, we’re all bound to trip up, lose our tempers, and say things we don’t mean. Communication repair grants you and your child the space to acknowledge mistakes, apologize when things go off the rails, and make amends – all of which are important to fostering healthy communication.

The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “I Didn’t Mean It!” How ADHD Affects Communication — and Strategies to Improve It [Video Replay and Podcast #393] with Mark Bertin, MD, which was broadcast live on March 22, 2022.

Communication Skills in Kids with ADHD: Next Steps

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View Article Sources

1 Shaw, P., Eckstrand, K., Sharp, W., Blumenthal, J., Lerch, J. P., Greenstein, D., Clasen, L., Evans, A., Giedd, J., & Rapoport, J. L. (2007). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is characterized by a delay in cortical maturation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104(49), 19649–19654.

2 Chahboun,S., Kvello, Ø., et al. (2021). Extending the field of extended language: a literature review on figurative language processing in neurodevelopmental disorders. Frontiers in Communication.

3 Korrel, H., Mueller, K. L., Silk, T., Anderson, V., & Sciberras, E. (2017). Research Review: Language problems in children with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – a systematic meta-analytic review. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines, 58(6), 640–654.

4 Bangert, K. J., & Finestack, L. H. (2020). Linguistic Maze Production by Children and Adolescents With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Journal of speech, language, and hearing research : JSLHR, 63(1), 274–285.

5 Feldman H. M. (2019). How Young Children Learn Language and Speech. Pediatrics in review, 40(8), 398–411.

6 Niklas, F., Cohrssen, C., & Tayler, C. (2016). The Sooner, the Better: Early Reading to Children. SAGE Open.

7 Jerrim, J., Lopez-Agudo, LA., Marcenaro-Gutierrez, O. (2020) Does it matter what children read? New evidence using longitudinal census data from Spain, Oxford Review of Education, 46:5, 515-533, DOI: 10.1080/03054985.2020.1723516

8 Madigan, S., McArthur, B. A., Anhorn, C., Eirich, R., & Christakis, D. A. (2020). Associations Between Screen Use and Child Language Skills: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA pediatrics, 174(7), 665–675.