Making Friends

How to Nurture Social Emotional Development in Isolation

With practice and patience, parents of children with ADHD can promote their social emotional development — even while social distancing — and help them gain confidence that endures in the “real” world.

An illustration of four children wearing masks as they head to school

In many states and families, isolation is essential during this pandemic. But is necessary social distancing creating a social-emotional crisis for children with ADHD who can’t easily practice their social skills, make friends, and nurture their emotional wellbeing now? It’s hard not to worry about how remote or hybrid learning, canceled sports, and rare play dates are impacting their social emotional development, especially when ADHD is already a complicating factor.

Though we can’t wave a magic wand to end quarantines, parents can still help their children develop social skills while stuck at home in a way that translates to the in-person world.

Social Emotional Development in Children with ADHD

Social emotional development takes root when children witness the social world – whether online or in person – and how it works. Encouraging children to engage in, and reflect on, the social world — rather than simply describing it — helps them intuitively build the skills to move through it. Parents can help children pay attention to, and reflect on, their interactions by asking open-ended questions (who, what, when, where, how?) and by practicing reflective listening. Here are some recommended strategies for doing that.

1. Prep Your Child (and Yourself) First

Many children resist learning new social skills. Maybe they are holding tight to a fixed story about themselves that they don’t recognize is hindering them socially and alienating other kids. When kids constantly hear that they need to “fix” something about themselves, it may spur a fear of failure, and therefore, hinder attempts to learn new skills. Apart from that, making friends and being social is hard.

Many parents do not realize that they’re communicating with their child in a way that discourages or annoys them. That’s why it’s important to first understand your child’s point of view and focus on building a positive relationship with them so that they become active participants. Learning more about what’s going on with a child comes by:

  • Talking directly with them and validating their struggles
  • Pursuing the perspectives of siblings, coaches, teachers, and others who know the child
  • When your child provides information about their social skills and difficulties, use reflective listening to make them feel understood and that their concerns matter
  • Repeat back their statements to demonstrate that you understand their feelings accurately
  • Accept and validate their sentiments
  • Express empathy (“I hear you,” I get that,” “That must be hard,” “I am sad you are lonely,” etc.)

[Essential Reading: Social Skills Training for Kids with ADHD]

2. Reflect on Social Settings

Next, ask your child to reflect on their social settings through questions and exercises that touch on how the environment is functioning, their role in it, and how others are behaving (to build empathy). Asking the questions below will help children take a 360-degree view of their behaviors and intentions, increase their emotional intelligence, and strengthen their executive function skills.

Social Cues & Body Language

After your child participates in online settings — like virtual classes or multi-player video games — ask them:

  • What’s going on in the group?
  • What are the norms of this group (i.e. the unspoken rules)?
  • What do you find interesting about this group?
  • What do you know about these individuals (i.e. the teacher, students)?

Encourage your child to adopt a “bird’s eye view” of their role and the situation’s dynamics. This can help them decipher what’s realistically at play, build up their metacognition (self-talk), and become aware of areas of weakness. To do this, children can ask themselves:

  • Who is in this group?
  • How do I step into other members’ shoes?
  • How are they reacting to my messages and behaviors?
  • What are their likes and dislikes?
  • What “hot buttons” do they have?
  • What do I think is going on in their lives?
  • What did I notice about their reaction to the situation?
  • How is everyone else behaving, and how do I compare?

[Read: How Can My Child Learn to Play Well with Others When No One’s Playing at All?]

3. Practice Building Friendships

Making friends is not a passive process. It involves meeting someone, learning about them, thinking about your relationship with them, engaging in small talk, and initiating one-to-one activities. Kids and teens with ADHD sometimes rush into friendships and exhaust people, or fail to follow through on the action steps needed to make friendships come about. Social distancing has cut off activities, clubs, and classroom sizes — all avenues for children to make friends.

Still, children can develop these skills from the other side of the screen:

  • Notice: A classmate’s t-shirt, mask, and other belongings (even what appears in video backgrounds) can help children locate people with shared interests.
  • Chat: Making small talk may be easier in a chat window or video break than on the playground in person. Encourage your child to practice in a low-risk environment, like over the dinner table with family, or with cousins and other close relatives. Small talk is also a great way to practice listening.
  • Reach out: Your child may struggle to reach beyond simple greetings in their larger online classroom. Try helping them devise an excuse to reach out to a potential friend outside of the larger group. A lot of children are finding it easier (and less risky) to practice these skills online with one-on-on virtual hangouts like watching a Netflix show together or just chatting in a Google Hangout.
  • Research online groups: Online groups suitable for children and teens are popping up, some even arranged by school districts and others that can safely meet in person. Your child might be willing to join a group that aligns with their interests and/or the community. Research shows that when kids reach out and interact outside of a larger online community, they actually do bridge toward friendship.

Parents can further help children reflect on a budding or waning friendship by asking:

  • What’s enjoyable about your friendship?
  • What do you like about this person?
  • What do you think friendship should feel like?

With practice and patience, and even in the era of social distancing, parents can work on their child’s social emotional development and help them gain confidence to last a lifetime.

Social Emotional Development: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude Expert Webinar “Social Emotional Learning for Children with ADHD in Quarantine” by Caroline Maguire, M.Ed., ACCG, PCC (available as ADDitude ADHD Experts Podcast episode #324), which was broadcast live on September 16, 2020.

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