Making Friends

How to Be Your Child’s Social Emotional Learning Coach

Whether due to rejection sensitivity, poor self-awareness, social anxiety, or executive dysfunction, social challenges follow many children with ADHD as they grow. Parents can take a page from the social-emotional learning approach to guide their kids toward social success. Here are 6 ways to get started.Social-emotional learning activities and strategies for ADHD kids who struggle to make and keep friends.

Portrait of three boys laughing
Portrait of three boys laughing

Social-emotional learning is more than just engaging in play, and it’s more than just making chitchat. It is learning designed to build a wide range of foundational skills — including emotional regulation, decision-making, self-awareness, and problem-solving — that help children make friends and successfully navigate social settings. While some kids develop these skills instinctively, many only master them with direct instruction — and, often, kids with ADHD fall into the latter category.

Difficulty with social skills can take many different forms. Maybe your child is exhibiting behavior that’s alienating peers, like interrupting or talking loudly. Maybe your child experiences social anxiety and has difficulty approaching new friends. Possibly your child has rejection sensitivity and feels as though peers don’t like them. If this sounds familiar, social-emotional learning could help.

The thing to know about the social skills needed to make friends is that they can’t be learned in a lecture. We need models. We need to witness the desired (or undesired) behavior in others, which makes it possible to notice it in ourselves. Then we use that information to rehearse new behaviors, self-correct, and try them in real social situations.

That’s where parents come in — serving in the critical role of coach.

Begin by having a fruitful series of conversations with your kids about their social landscape and their relationship to it. From there, roll up your sleeves and help your child learn, through models, planning and practice, the skills they need to make, and keep, friends. Here’s how to get started.

[Read: 7 Executive Function Deficits Linked to ADHD]

The Social Emotional Learning Coach: Activities and Strategies for Kids with ADHD

Lay the Groundwork: Talking to Kids About Social Challenges

  1. Ask, Don’t Tell

Parents who see their child struggling socially often have the well-intentioned instinct to tell kids what they should and shouldn’t do in those settings, sometimes reminding them of past flubs. The trouble is, kids often get defensive and shut down this kind of instruction. So, stop telling and start asking open-ended questions like the following:

  • What’s hard about going to the cafeteria? What does it feel like?
  • What’s the most popular thing to do at recess?
  • What happens in homeroom between the different social groups?

It’s OK if your child doesn’t know how to answer your questions. You can help move the conversation along by offering some possible answer options and asking if you’re getting it right.

There are a few benefits to asking open-ended questions.

First, they strengthen your relationship with your child by showing them you care about their perspective. Second, these questions give your child the space and impetus to think critically about the social landscape, and to become more aware of their feelings about it. They build an executive function skill called metacognition. This is basically the ability to take a bird’s eye view of a situation, to be aware of your skills and abilities, your challenges, and your past history. Maybe you have a hard time waiting for your turn to speak, or you are often late, or maybe you struggle to walk across the hall and say hi to an acquaintance. If you know what your weaknesses are, you can work on them. If you know what your strengths are, you can lean into them.

[Watch: Building Conversation Skills in Kids with ADHD]

  1. Listen Reflectively

Knowing how to ask the right questions is the first step. Just as important, though, is knowing how to respond to your child’s answers. The key to success here is reflective listening. Just repeat back your child’s words or, if you can’t remember them exactly, repeat the gist of what they’ve said.

Reflective listening makes your child feel heard — literally — which is very validating and opens the door for future communication. It also gives them the chance to clarify their thoughts, work through problems verbally, and hear their internal conversation. As the kids start to hear themselves, their wheels start turning. (Another way to build metacognition.) It may take a little while, but eventually they are more likely to realize where they might be going wrong socially, without you having to tell them in a way that feels critical.

  1. Consider Your Child’s Internal Narrative

In addition to understanding the reasons your child is struggling, it’s important to understand the reasons they think they’re struggling (these may or may not be the same). To do this, you need to be aware of their internal narrative.

Maybe the story goes, “I’m boring, so no one wants to talk to me,” or “Everyone at school thinks I’m weird,” or “Everything would be fine if Dad just got off my back.”

Open-ended conversations will expose your child’s internal story line not just to you, but, perhaps even more importantly, to themselves.

Social-Emotional Learning Activities and Strategies

  1. Be a Social Spy

Emerging research shows that the more we watch actions and gestures, the more we remember them. This is part of why Social Spy is such an effective way for kids to learn nuanced social skills. Social Spy is a technique that helps kids raise social awareness by simply watching with intention as other people engage in social situations.

Seventy percent of social information is nonverbal, so be sure to observe expressions, habits, norms, unspoken rules, body language, and other visual cues. The more you do this with your kids casually in everyday life, the more they’ll build this muscle and relate what they’re seeing to their own actions. Don’t shy away from having your child observe people who are exhibiting problematic social behaviors, too. If they see other people displaying behaviors they sometimes exhibit, they are more likely to see the impact of those actions and make the connection to themselves.

  1. Set Up Social Infrastructure

Kids who struggle socially need opportunities outside of school to build friendships. Make sure the structures are in place for them to have shared experiences with peers, and an excuse to convene on a regular basis to explore a hobby or activity that your child enjoys. This might be basketball or soccer, singing in a chorus, acting in a theatrical production, playing chess or Dungeons and Dragons, or learning to code. It doesn’t matter what the activity is, as long as it offers your child a reason to spend time with peers. Pre-arranged activities create a low-pressure environment where kids can act as a Social Spy while making connections.

  1. Work Out the Kinks in a Safe Space

Home is often the best place to help children with ADHD work out tricky social challenges without the threat of consequences. Playing structured games with rules allows parents to provide a safe environment for kids to work out a lot of the issues that may be causing problems in their friendships.

An excellent way to do this is through a game I call Build a Tower, in which the whole family works together to design and build a tower out of blocks. It sounds simple, but the game helps kids practice cooperation, taking turns, frustration tolerance, and celebrating their peers’ abilities — all skills they’ll need for their friendships to thrive.

Social Emotional Learning for Kids with ADHD: Next Steps


The content for this article was derived from the ADHD Experts webinar titled, “Why Will No One Play With me? Social Emotional Training for Teachers and Parents of Kids with ADHD,” [Podcast #418] with Caroline Maguire, ACCG, PCC, M.Ed., author of Why Will No One Play with Me? (#CommissionsEarned). The webinar was broadcast live on August 23, 2022.


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