Build Back Your Child’s Social Skills in 7 Steps
“Lack of practice, lagging maturity, fewer social models, and weak executive functions mean that children with ADHD are struggling. Now is the time to provide extra support to build back emotional skills. The good news is that, like any other skill, these skills can be taught and improved.”
Have you watched your child with ADHD interact with peers and wondered why they can’t drop the joke after it stopped making their friends laugh? Become too silly for too long, take over the game, and tell friends what to do and when to do it? Get into others’ space, talk at or poke friends over and over, or insist he is correct, regardless of whether it is true?
What Causes Poor Social Skills in Children with ADHD?
Some parents fear that if they don’t supervise, cajole, suggest alternatives, and remind their child not to say or do things, they will be destined to a life without friends.
Making and keeping friends is tough for some children with ADHD. While your child has strengths, it is the weak executive functions — the management system of the brain — that affect their social skills. These brain-based processes determine how they behave in social situations.
After a year of social distancing, children with ADHD may need to practice being together. A year without play dates has made social interactions more challenging for all children, especially those with ADHD. Lack of practice, lagging maturity, fewer social models, and weak executive functions mean that they are struggling. Now is the time to provide children with extra support to build back emotional skills.
How to Improve Social Skills in Children with ADHD
Determine the root cause of social ineptness and practice workarounds.
What causes the most disruption? Does your child have difficulty sharing, managing emotions, engaging with a friend, handling excitement, or being flexible? Once you have identified the top one or two challenges, practice building skills in real-world situations.
Beef up skills.
Children with executive function weaknesses often need direct instruction to help them learn to self-regulate, read the room, and stop interrupting. To help your child with social learning, demonstrate the desired skill or behavior, then engage in situations where she can practice this new skill. Engage in conversations, ask her to share with siblings, prompt her to interpret daily situations, so she can cultivate the skill and demonstrate it with a playmate.
If your child can’t manage her emotions when losing a game, play board games with her, and encourage her to use the soothing strategies you have taught her. Ask her to show you how she can allow family or friends to choose a game or a TV show. Talk about what flexible versus inflexible behavior looks like, and remind her to work on this social skill before the next play date. When your child is flexible and courteous, you can say, “Great job. I love it when you are like that.”
Assign your child a mission.
Choose one or two focused behaviors to practice during your child’s next play date. If your child has shown anger, explain that they can work on controlling their anger the next time they see a friend. As you head to the park, remind them that they have two missions: to share and to take a deep breath to calm himself. You and your child should choose a mission together for better chances of success.
Find compatible friends.
A friend whose temperament is similar to your child’s will help him to play better and to practice the target behaviors. But two bossy kids may lead to arguments.
Pre-plan the play date.
Timing is everything when it comes to play dates. Remember that one goal of the play date (besides having fun) is to give your child a chance to practice new skills. Set up the date for a time when your child is not hungry, tired, sick, or sad. Play dates that last over two hours usually lead to disaster, as this is too long to work on emerging skills.
[Additional Reading: 3 Ways To Develop Social Skills]
Control the activities and environments.
Hosting the play date lets you remove the activities or toys that you know will cause problems. Choose an environment your child enjoys. Should you meet at your home or at a playground? A crowded park may be overstimulating, and that is not a good thing.
Create subtle cues.
Rather than intervening and embarrassing your child, set up cues or code words to remind him of his mission. You can agree ahead of time that when you bring juice boxes over, he should think of his mission. When you put a hand on his shoulder, it should remind him to share more. If you say something like “What are you going to play next?” he should remember to let his friend choose a game. You can make things fun and silly by picking a funny code word, like “clown.”
Every child benefits from social coaching and practice. Each of us makes friends in a different way. Building friendships requires emotional skills, self-regulation, and social competence. If we show our children how to respond to — and extend — friendly overtures, they can build social connections.
Social Skills Exercise: “I Say, You Say”
This exercise is designed to help your child with ADHD recognize that a conversation is a two-way street, and that interrupting, monologuing, and blurting out are not conducive to a dialogue. Help your child get used to adding to or expanding on a topic. Every conversation has distinct parts: speaking, listening, and thinking how to respond.
What Your Child Can Say to Get Started
- How is your day going?
- Do you like (a teacher, a situation, an activity, a video game)?
- How was (a situation)?
- What was that like?
- Hey, I noticed…
How to extend a Conversation
- Ask questions.
- Try to learn something about the other person.
- Ask about interests, and see if you have any shared experiences.
- Comment on what the person has said and ask a question.
Learn the Give-and-Take of Conversation
Greeting: “Hello” or “How’s it going?”
Topic: A recent vacation, sports, or school.
Building on the topic: Add to the topics you and your partner have agreed to talk about. For example:
- Speaker 1: “This summer I want to camp more.”
- Speaker 2: “Me, too. Where do you go?”
Interpret verbal and non-verbal signals: Tune into body language (yawning, crossed arms) as it expresses how the speaker feels.
Listen: Actively take in information. It is also important to look like you are listening.
Make supportive comments: Say something to let the speaker know you are listening. Examples: “Oh, wow” or “Oh, that is tough!”
Use Gestures: Nod and lean forward to show that you are interested in what you are hearing.
How to Improve Social Skills: Next Steps
- Use: Downloads That Build Social Skills
- Download: Free Friendship Guide for Kids with ADHD
- Read: A New Way to Sharpen Social Skills
Caroline Maguire, ACCG, PCC, M.Ed., is a personal coach who works with children who struggle socially and their families. She is the author of Why Will No One Play with Me? (#CommissionsEarned)
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