How to Make Friends as an Adult: A Guide for Women with ADHD
Women with ADHD have difficulty holding onto friendships. They feel squeezed by social expectations they feel destined to miss. Understanding the ADHD brain and how it impacts social skills can decrease the shame and increase the opportunities for meaningful connection.
Friendship Challenges for Adult Women with ADHD
Peer acceptance is a strong measure of self-worth in women. Their identities are defined by the strength of their relationships.
What’s more, social interactions are some of the most painful and distressing struggles for women with ADHD. Studies show that social behaviors of women with the condition are more impaired than in women without the condition. They are compromised by emotional factors, like anxiety and mood disorder. Friendships are about cooperation, awareness of others’ needs, emotional availability, and relationship maintenance. These require a near-perfect choreography of executive functions, and women with ADHD often feel thwarted as they try to dance to friendship’s tune.
The myth is that maintaining relationships is easier for women, and women with ADHD strive to hide their social impairments. They want and need friends, but they fear being outed as a fraud. Amber described feeling like an impostor: “If they don’t invite me to join the book club, I’m a reject—but if they invite me, they’ll find out I hate to read.”
Friendships require verbal interplay, good listening, and an awareness of nonverbal cues. Most women with ADHD find it hard to perform these skills consistently. Juggling complex lives, many women don’t have enough energy left over to keep close friendships. Their lives require downtime to regroup. At night, they revel in the quiet moments when they don’t have to be with anyone. Still, craving connectedness, they promise too much in their efforts to be accepted.
Knowing the time, energy, and organization required, Jen admitted, “I always made excuses to avoid the preschool moms’ breakfasts. So, when they asked me to volunteer, I agreed to manage the auction. I thought I might feel less guilty and get them to like me. I didn’t consider the fact that I was clueless about auctions. After volunteering, I certainly wasn’t going to ask them for help, so I drove myself and my family crazy trying to score some credibility with the moms.” Most women with ADHD carry painful memories of friendships gone wrong, and fears of reproach and rejection increase their avoidance.
When women with ADHD spend time with good friends, they can be totally present — enthusiastic and passionate. Yet when the friends are gone, they cannot retain that emotional memory. Moved to the back burner by more urgent matters, the friends, however much they are treasured, drop off the radar screen.
Sadly, women with ADHD may not notice the growing separation from their friends. Friendship maintenance requires checking in and asking, “How are you?” even if not a lot has happened since the last time the friends talked. Cara fretted, “Did Amanda tell me her uncle got divorced or had a hip replacement? I’m not sure, but I know she remembers everything I tell her.”
Friendship Shame for Women with ADHD
Social expectations include social conventions like birthday cards, thank-you notes, and the like. Often, check-ins are moved from today’s to-do list to tomorrow’s list, until they become delayed for days, weeks, or months. Long silences do not mean a lack of interest, but friends may perceive them that way. After a gap in communication, some women with ADHD become ashamed of their avoidance, and fearful of its consequences, so they let the friendship slip away rather than try to explain their silence.
The reciprocal invitation poses a challenge. Ashley described the lengths she goes to when she has to reciprocate for a dinner, for example. “The night before my dinner party, I throw all household clutter into garbage bags and shove them into the closet, where they stay for months. I reject offers of kitchen help, so no one sees the crumbs in the fridge. I can’t enjoy my evenings because I’m so anxious.” Internalizing the shame may keep your missteps a secret, but it also keeps your authentic self hidden.
Social Strategies for Women with ADHD
Harness Technology for Your ADHD Brain
Technology can ease social interaction. Friends want acknowledgment, but it doesn’t have to arrive in the mail.
- A one-line text (“Thinking of you”) breaks the silence and is appreciated.
- You can depend on pop-up reminders and alarms to remind you of important dates.
- To avoid being late for a lunch date, set an alarm to indicate the time when you need to leave for lunch, rather than the time of the lunch itself. Be generous in figuring travel time to avoid arriving in a frantic state.
- Alarms can empower you if you pay attention to them. “I’ll do it in a minute” allows your brain to move on to other things. Eliminate use of the “snooze” feature on alarms and try to commit to simply standing up when the alarm goes off. Standing up doesn’t permit procrastination.
Talk Openly About Your ADHD Symptoms
Socialize with friends who are flexible and accepting of your ways. Some friends expect total and immediate attention, and see any delay as neglectful. You can explain your situation without apology: “I’m not great at responding quickly, but your emails are important to me. I’ll get back to you soon.” If maintaining a friendship creates more anxiety, guilt, and self-doubt than pleasure, think about those costs as you evaluate the friendship.
Anticipate Your ADHD Triggers
Be aware of your red flags. Women with ADHD are not comfortable being team players. They tend to feel that their differences preclude being members of clubs or committees. As the ADHD brain keeps looking for stimulation, it may trigger some to interrupt conversations, change the subject, lose eye contact, or tune out. If you’re gathered around a table at a restaurant, sit near the center. With people on both sides, you can choose the speaker who engages you, and switch conversations when you lose interest. When you start to fidget, stifle a yawn, or check the time, respect your brain’s need to move on. Visit the restroom — to rest and renew yourself. Walk around, check your phone, maybe come back with a reason to leave early.
Incorporate Movement Into Your Plans
Substitute a walk or a lunch date for a shopping date. Many women enjoy shopping together, but women with ADHD usually don’t. They need to go at their own pace in a multi-sensory environment. Attending to another person’s needs in this setting is usually fraught, and leaves women with ADHD feeling trapped and frustrated. Many say yes to a casual invitation to go shopping, but when the date comes, they want out. When you’re making plans, it’s better to say, “Shopping’s not my strong suit. How about a walk or lunch instead?”
How to Host a Dinner Party with ADHD
Use these strategies when reciprocating a dinner date:
- Try to do your hosting in warmer weather, when you can eat outside and have less formal, buffet-style meals.
- Some women invite everyone they owe a dinner to for the same evening, to get several obligations over with at once. True, you only have to prepare one meal, but the stress of attending to everyone at once is too much. With a small group, you can create a distraction: play a game, share some new music you’ve discovered, or take a walk after dinner.
- Guide the conversation to topics you feel confident in discussing. Try to keep the evening short, mentioning early on that you need to get a jump on the next day. Putting a boundary in place provides structure.
- Another choice is to offer a completely different experience that reciprocates without the struggle. Take friends out for high tea, or have a prepared picnic lunch at a park.
Accept Your Brain
You can’t change your brain wiring or the expectations of the world. But you can understand that the reality we see is shaped by the lens through which we see it. The good news is that you can reframe the importance of expectations so that they have less power over you. The goal is to view your world through a lens that is accepting of your unique needs. Relieved of social constraints and judgments, you can act on your strengths rather than apologize for your liabilities. By learning to respect your own values over society’s demands, you can balance your needs versus others’ needs. With compassion for your challenges, you can gain the confidence to make and keep the friendships that nurture you.
Ellen B. Littman, Ph.D., has been involved in the field of attention disorders for more than 27 years. She is a pioneer in the identification of gender differences in ADHD. Internationally recognized and published, she is co-author of the book Understanding Girls with ADHD (#CommissionsEarned)
What’s Your Friendship Type?
Women with ADHD have unique obstacles to making and keeping friends, depending on their ADHD subtype. Those with Hyperactive/Impulsive ADHD:
- interrupt conversations
- become easily bored
- dominate the conversation
- disregard social rules
- blurt out negative comments
- talk about themselves too much
- use alcohol to enhance their stimulation level
- sever relationships that feel frustrating
Those with Inattentive ADHD:
- feel overwhelmed by emotional demands
- experience anxiety in unfamiliar social situations
- censor themselves when they perceive conflict
- avoid unstructured group socializing
- withdraw when they feel overstimulated
- use obsessive behaviors to create a flawless facade
- attribute their missteps to character flaws
- anticipate criticism or rejection
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