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“It’s Not About Social Cues. It’s About Social Learning.”

Social learning challenges are common in teens with ADHD, who struggle with perspective taking and situational awareness. Talk therapy and social skills groups rarely help.

What Causes Social Learning Challenges

Social skills in kids with ADHD are almost universally misunderstood. For example, parents and professionals often say to me, “He misses social cues.” But that’s actually not accurate for most kids with ADHD who have social learning challenges, meaning they have not learned social information intuitively from a young age to the same extent as their peers.

Lagging perspective-taking skills — this is the foundation of these social learning challenges. Kids with ADHD have difficulty thinking about others’ thoughts and understanding how they come across to others. This is a result of their lagging self-directed talk, or “brain coach,” as I call it.

In early elementary school, lagging perspective-taking skills looks like:

  • Wanting to control play situations
  • Being bossy
  • Having trouble engaging in reciprocal play

Around age 10 or 11, social learning challenges become more noticeable because becoming part of a same-gender peer group becomes important to more kids and social expectations increase. This is when most parents reach out to me because they realize this has not improved with age.

Manifestations of Social Learning Challenges

Kids with ADHD who struggle socially because of lagging perspective-taking skills often don’t understand why their peers may reacts negatively to them. As a result, they may think other kids are being mean to them or they are being bullied. In reality, most of the time, their words or behaviors elicited a negative response. I call this “cringe-y thoughts.”

Another reason why kids with ADHD struggle socially is because of poor situational awareness, or reading the field. If your son ever walked into the street without looking, it was because he wasn’t using situational awareness. I often find that kids do fine in structured social situations, but have difficulty reading the field in unstructured or semi-structured situations.

How to Address Social Learning Challenges

Social learning challenges are a learning issue, not a mental health issue.

Counseling or talk therapy is not going to effectively address social learning challenges. A social skills group may have been recommended to you by a professional, but please know that the research shows social skills groups are not effective for kids with ADHD and that is certainly the case for the vast majority of families with whom I work.


Social Learning Challenges: Next Steps

Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW is the facilitator of the ADHD Dude Facebook Group and YouTube channel. Ryan specializes in working with males (ages 5-22) who present with ADHD, anxiety with ADHD, and learning differences.

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