Making Friends

Q: My Teen Wants ‘Cool Kid’ Friends, or None at All

The ‘cool kids’ don’t extend invitations or friendship, but your lonely child refuses to look beyond this social clique that repeatedly scorns him. How can you help him broaden his mindset and his social life?

Close-up portrait of a thoughtful unhappy teenage boy with smartphone, outdoors.  Sad teenager with mobile phone looks away, in the park.  Pensive teenager in casual clothes with cell phone in park
Close-up portrait of a thoughtful unhappy teenage boy with smartphone, outdoors. Sad teenager with mobile phone looks away, in the park. Pensive teenager in casual clothes with cell phone in park

Justin was a talented high school athlete. But, at age 16, he had no friends — and his parents were worried. When I first met Justin, it was clear that he had what Social Thinking® creator Michelle Garcia Winner calls “social learning challenges.” Unlike his same-age peers, he did not learn social information intuitively — a common challenge for adolescents with ADHD.

Despite its prevalence, social challenges are one of the most misunderstood topics in the ADHD and mental health fields. Many misconceptions exist around helping children with ADHD improve socially. First and foremost, I emphasized to Justin’s family that social learning challenges are a learning issue, not a mental health issue.

A History of Social Challenges

Justin’s social history followed a familiar trajectory:

In 5th grade, classmates and teammates began excluding Justin from social outings.

In middle school, Justin was able to initiate friendships with teammates from other elementary schools, but these relationships were often short lived. A therapist recommended a social skills group nearby. Justin’s mother found that the other kids in the group had much more pronounced challenges than did Justin. What’s more, the group did not address the core learning issues associated with social learning challenges.

Justin went through middle school trying to attach himself to the “popular kids,” many of whom played on his sports teams, but these boys never included him. Justin knew this, yet he kept trying.

[Download This Free Friendship Guide for Kids with ADHD]

Since beginning high school more than a year earlier, Justin had had two just two get-togethers — and only because he invited some boys to an NBA game.

“He’s now gone through middle school, 9th grade, and I feel like he’s about to go through 10th grade with no friends, no invitations,” his mother told me. “Some boys have reached out to Justin and wanted to befriend him, but Justin calls them weird, or nerds because they are not ‘cool’ in his eyes. I think he thinks anyone who is not in the popular group isn’t worthy of his time. I explain to him that if no one else is reaching out he should take advantage of these invitations, but he won’t. It’s either the cool kids or no one for him. Justin doesn’t seem to understand he’s never going to be in the popular crowd; he won’t accept it. He has the opportunity for friendships; he just thinks these kids are not cool enough for him.”

Removing the Shame from Social Challenges

During my career, I have known several “Justins” — boys with ADHD who present with social learning challenges, are inflexible, and are also elitist about the people with whom they socialize. This is not a good combination because, in my experience, most of them sit home alone every weekend.

When I met Justin, I did what I do with all kids who present with social learning challenges: I provided context for helping him understand how the ADHD brain makes “learning social” more complicated. Just as a kid with a learning disability may struggle to learn math or reading, his ADHD was making social knowledge difficult to grasp. I provide context for social learning challenges because many boys develop shame around their difficulty connecting with similar-age peers and because no one ever explains why this happens.

[Read This Next: Apps That Boost Social Skills]

When I work with kids who have the “cool kids or no one” mentality, I do not sugarcoat things. I address the fact that their rigidity and elitist attitude have kept them from forming friendships with kids who would be eager and loyal friends.

“You can go through the rest of high school waiting for the popular kids to invite you somewhere, which hasn’t happened in 6 years, or you can choose to make your brain be more flexible and say to yourself:  This isn’t happening, I need to move on and find kids who will appreciate me for who I am,” I told Justin. “The most important thing I want you to understand is that there are kids who want to be friends with you and you’re going to have to put in the effort to cultivate friendships with them. I can help you with this if this is what you want. If you’re not interested, that’s OK, but I think it would be sad to see you go through the rest of high school hoping the popular kids are eventually going to include you.”

At our next session a week later, Justin came in and said, “Fine. Just tell me what to do.” Apparently, my message resonated enough that he was willing to be more flexible.

How Justin Began to Make Friends

To build meaningful friendships, Justin first needed to work on developing three important skills:

  • perspective taking – understanding others’ thoughts/feelings and understanding how you’re coming across to others
  • relating to others’ emotional experience – responding in a way that shows you can connect with others experiences/emotions as well as relating to others sense of humor
  • showing interest in others and the social executive functioning steps involved in cultivating and sustaining friendships – reaching out, coming up with a plan to get together, frequency of communication through digital communication

When Justin developed a friendship with a boy who initially tried to befriend a year earlier, he reported to me that he realized this other boy would be a loyal friend with whom he shared common interests, despite the fact this boy wasn’t on any of Justin’s sports teams. As I worked with Justin, it became very apparent that he began to feel better about himself when he felt socially connected.

While Justin could be considered a “success story,” I’ve also worked with some boys who have reached the “inflexibility tipping point.” They have become so inflexible that they are not receptive to accepting help. (That usually comes when they mature and realize through natural consequences that their inflexibility has been a detriment.)

If your son or daughter struggles socially yet has the “cool kids or no one” mentality, they require compassionate honesty and help “learning social.” It is never too late to improve social skills, but improvement comes slowly so don’t put off taking the first step.

Cool Kids and ADHD: Next Steps

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