Making Friends

Coaching Kids Toward Lasting Friendships

Children with ADHD often have trouble making friends, but it turns out that parents can help. Learn why solo time with your child and planned playdates can help you take a more active role in how he makes new friends.

Become Your ADHD Child's Friendship Coach: Parenting Advice
Become Your ADHD Child's Friendship Coach: Parenting Advice

It’s common for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to have trouble making friends. How can parents help?

Amori Yee Mikami, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at University of Virginia, is studying this subject. In a series of study groups, she teaches parents of elementary school-age children how to be “friendship coaches” for their kids. The results are promising. Even teachers who don’t know about the program notice that kids who participate play better with their peers.

We asked Dr. Mikami to suggest social skills techniques that parents might find useful.

Helping a child make better friendships sounds like a tall order. Where do you start?

Start by listening. The more positive and trusting your relationship, the more likely it is that your child will accept your guidance. If he’s upset about a friendship problem, be empathetic. Give him a chance to express his feelings before saying what he should do differently next time.

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Spend some time doing fun things together, just the two of you, without directing or criticizing his behavior. Building a relationship with your child pays off. Parents in my study groups have said that when they work on relationship-building at home, they see better behavior in their child’s peer relationships right away.

But you do have to direct and criticize bad behavior sometimes, don’t you?

Yes, but keep the ratio of positive to negative remarks as high as possible. Praise should exceed criticism – even constructive criticism – by at least four to one. Look for the positive, even if it’s hard to find something to praise.

For example, you see your child with another child, and almost everything she does seems wrong. She goes up and says, “Hi,” introduces herself, and says she wants to play. Then she starts getting bossy, directing the other child: “We’re going to do this. I go first. You stand here.”

There’s a lot to criticize. But you can praise what she did well: walking up and introducing herself in a friendly way. As for the rest, there may be 20 behaviors that you’d like to change, but be selective. Pick the most important one or two-and be specific in what you say: “When you play a game, you get to move your pieces, but you have to let your friend move hers.”

Can parents take a more active role in promoting friendships?

They can and they should. Kids with ADHD may make poor choices when it comes to choosing friends. They pick someone they can boss around, often a younger child. Or they are attracted to “bad influences,” who are exciting because they’re always getting into trouble.

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You can help your child make better choices – for instance, a friend with the same interests who’s also a good personality match.

A great way to find the right playmates is to volunteer at your child’s school and for extracurricular activities. You see other kids, and you get to know other parents. It’s an opportunity to network and to suggest playdates.

Playdates – aren’t they more trouble than they’re worth?

For children, they’re the cornerstone of deepening friendships – one-on-one time, like having lunch with a coworker instead of just tagging along with a group. But kids with ADHD have far fewer playdates than other kids – only one-sixth as many. Parents are reluctant to set them up. They’re already exhausted after helping with homework and chores and getting through the morning routine. And they worry that their child will misbehave on the playdate. They may wonder, “Why set myself up for another struggle?”

How can you make playdates go more smoothly?

Planning. Before the playdate, put away anything that might cause conflict, like a favorite toy that your child wouldn’t want other kids to touch. Some kids have trouble with handheld video games that they refuse to share. Stash them in an off-limits place, such as your bedroom closet.

Plan enough activities so that you leave little or no unstructured time. If your child has repeatedly acted in a way that’s likely to cause trouble, caution him in advance about the most appropriate behavior. For instance, if he’s overly competitive at board games, tell him, “If you lose, say ‘Good game’ to your friend, or don’t say anything.” Be on hand with snacks or another distraction in case the kids start fighting – especially if you don’t know the other child well.

And limit the length of the get-together. An hour is sufficient for a six- or seven-year-old child, particularly if this is his first playdate with this friend. For a 10-year-old, you can extend the time another hour or so. Overall, you want it to end while everybody is still having fun.

How closely should you supervise?

It depends largely on the age and the child. You might want to be in the same room with a six-year-old, so you can head off a tantrum if you see it coming. For a 10-year-old, stay just within earshot and check in from time to time to see if the kids friends need your attention. If it’s too quiet, your child may have lost interest and be ignoring her friend.

Whisper to your child if something’s wrong. If it’s the kind of behavior you discussed beforehand, a reminder may be enough. If it isn’t, or if the misbehavior is serious, talk to her in another room. Unless the situation is really out of control, don’t cut the playdate short.

What do you do after the playdate’s over?

Debrief your child. Give him feedback, particularly on how he handled the behavior you focused on before the playdate. You might say, “It was really nice of you to congratulate your friend on winning the game, like we talked about.”

Use the experience in planning the next playdate. If you stay focused on improving trouble behaviors, you should see progress. It often happens that way in my study groups.

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