Ask the Experts

“Why Can’t I Make and Keep Friends?”

“I’m terrible at remembering names.” “I hate small talk.” “I lose focus during conversations.” “I blurt out comments without thinking.” Symptoms of ADHD in adulthood sometimes get in the way of making friends (and keeping them!). Learn how to build meaningful relationships with these seven expert tips.

Q: “I am a 39-year-old male diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD). I take medication and have hired an ADHD coach, but my social skills haven’t improved. I go to parties and meet people, but I forget their names or don’t ask for contact information. I don’t do a great job of staying in touch with the friends I do have. I don’t like talking on the phone, so I don’t call them as often as I should. As a result, we grow apart. I feel lonely, sad, and demoralized, but I don’t how to solve this situation. How do I make and keep friends, despite inferior social skills?”

A: Many of us with ADHD share problems with making friends and keeping friends. Inattention and impulsivity thwart our efforts at good social skills and maintaining close relationships. The good news is that social skills can be taught, practiced, and learned.

How to Make Friends: Practice Verbal and Non-Verbal Skills

Start small. Smile at a passerby on the street. At a store checkout, boost your confidence level by standing up straight. Notice the cashier’s name tag and say, “Thank you, Sharon,” after she rings up your purchase. Making eye contact and smiling is the best way to connect with someone you don’t know. If you are uncomfortable making direct eye contact, look at the person’s ear or forehead. Practicing this on strangers will increase your comfort level, until you can do it at a party.

How to Make Friends: Repeat a Person’s Name to Remember It

When you are at a party or any get-together, choose just one person’s name to remember. Repeat that person’s name a few times. The more you repeat the name, the more likely you are to remember it. Start some questions in a conversation with the person’s name, saying, “Cindy, how long have you known our host?” Using a person’s name establishes a rapport with them and makes it easier to suggest getting together for, say, pizza. Use a descriptor when entering contact information in your phone, so it will be easy to find. When you get home, you may not remember that her name was Cindy, but you can find her number when you search for “pizza.”

How to Make Friends: Listen Well and Ask Appropriate Questions

Sharpen your listening skills with your coach by asking her to tell you about her favorite vacation. To show that you’re listening, nod and acknowledge that you have heard what is being said by interjecting comments like, “Wow!” “Really?” “Right,” or “Cool.” When there is a pause, ask questions about the vacation: “Was the water there really warm?” or “Did it snow a lot on your ski trip?” or “What was the food like at the lodge?” Before you go to a party or family event, think of questions in advance to get a conversation started. Complimenting the food is a safe bet.

[Self-Test: Do I Have ADHD? ADD Symptoms in Adults]

Let people know a little about you (your favorite food, music, season, or holiday) without being boastful or talking too much about yourself. When you engage in a conversation by being a good listener, it will be easier to ask someone to text you, so you can text them back and stay in touch.

How to Make Friends: Stay in Touch

Keeping up with new or old friends and family strengthens our relationships. A call doesn’t have to be returned with a call; you can send a text or email. The method you use to respond is not as important as responding in a timely fashion. If you keep putting it off because you don’t know what to say, simply respond by saying, “It’s great to hear from you! How have you been?” or “Thanks for the update.” Responses don’t have to be long or creatively crafted. They can be short and sweet, which is better than no response at all.

How to Make Friends: Reconnect with Old Friends

When we have been remiss in reaching out to long-lost friends, it is hard to take the first step in reconnecting with them, so start small. Send a simple text to let someone know you are thinking about them and wondering how they are doing. Not everyone will respond if it’s been a while, but some will.

How to Make Friends: Set Achievable Communication Goals

Text or email just one friend each Sunday morning. It’s OK to let friends know that you aren’t great at staying in touch by phone, and that email/texts works better for you. It’s much better than Facebook, as you won’t be distracted by other stuff that doesn’t concern this friend.

[Free Handout: Become a Small-Talk Superstar]

How to Meet New Friends

The best and easiest way to make new friends and stay in touch with them is to join a hobby club or volunteer organization that meets regularly. Even if you are shy, eventually you will get to know your fellow group members (and their names) and they will get to know you. A common interest or purpose bonds people with less effort on everyone’s part.

Establishing relationships and keeping them means suiting up and showing up, so put the group’s meeting schedule in your calendar with a reminder. Attending regularly lets the group members know that they are important to you, and creates bonds with each member, as well as the group.

Choose new friends wisely. The last thing you need is to be around someone who is critical of ADHD foibles. All of us deserve to be accepted and loved for who we are, so smile at your new friends and be yourself.

Sandy Maynard, M.S., owner of Catalytic Coaching, lives in the Boston area. You can reach her at [email protected].

[Self-Test: Do I Have Adult Inattentive ADD/ADHD?]