A Dad’s Role in Modeling Social Skills
Research shows that social skills groups don’t help boys with ADHD improve their friendships, but good male role models do. Fathers can teach their sons how to communicate and cultivate friendships in important ways. Here’s how to get started.
I cringed when I heard my nine-year-old son saying to a group of his peers at wrestling practice, “Excuse me. Excuse me.” The boys look perplexed. Why would a kid their age say “excuse me” to them? This was certainly not something I taught him; rather, he learned this in his social skills group at school.
When I realized my son needed help cultivating and sustaining friendships, I looked for a social skills program but found nothing specifically for boys with ADHD. There were plenty of these groups in our area, but most featured well-meaning female clinicians or guidance counselors teaching formal etiquette and scripted communication that did not resemble the way boys talk to each other. “How are you doing today?” “What are your hobbies?” When boys speak in that way, as my son had done at wrestling practice, it comes across as inauthentic. I know this because I was a boy, and I’ve worked with hundreds throughout my career as a school social worker, therapist, and camp director who runs programs for boys with ADHD.
When kids with ADHD struggle socially, their inability to read social cues isn’t the problem. Instead, they more likely have lagging and inconsistent use of social executive function (SEF) skills, which we use to understand others’ thoughts and feelings. These SEF skills help us know how we’re coming across to others, how to read a room (or situational awareness), how to initiate and end conversations, and how to use humor appropriately.
Building Boys’ Social Savvy
When fathers call me about their son’s social difficulties, they tend to talk much more than mothers do, perhaps because this is the first time they’re speaking to another man about this challenge. During these conversations, I find that most parents don’t see the connection between ADHD and lagging social skills. (In fact, I’ve heard a lot lately about kids who were misdiagnosed with autism because of their difficulty with SEF.) I explain the important role that male role models play in helping boys improve SEF skills; and the differentiated and valuable perspective they bring to their sons because they understand how boys’ friendships evolve and how boys communicate when adults aren’t around.
I want each father to understand that his son’s emotional awkwardness, and difficulty understanding how he’s coming across to others, is neither a choice nor apathy. These are skills he is still developing, and he is most likely several years behind his peers’ emotional maturity because ADHD is an executive function developmental delay.
When boys with ADHD struggle socially, their fathers often resort to lecturing, telling their sons what they’re doing wrong. In turn, their sons typically become argumentative or defensive because they truly don’t understand how they’re coming across to their peers. The defensiveness is often a result of their shame, knowing that they have a harder time connecting with their peers but not knowing why.
Tips for Dads
Here are a few tactics for dads, and other male role models, to help boys improve socially:
Cite successes. ADHD brains live in the present. Kids do not think about how to cultivate and sustain friendships when they’re not around their peers. Point out situations when your child showed another boy that he wanted to be friends and kept that friendship going.
Describe healthy friendships. Say what it means to be a good friend as well as when to end friendships that have become hurtful. Many of the boys I’ve worked with were quick to latch on to other boys who showed interest in them. I’ve seen boys cling to friendships when they’re not being treated well out of desperation for friends, or for inclusion in a peer group. In my school-year programs and in summer camp, I share stories about when I was growing up to give the boys examples of good friends I’ve had, and times I’ve had to cut off a friendship.
Raise awareness of patterns. Teach boys to understand how they come across to others. In Socially Smarter, my parent training program to build SEF, I depict a sequence of events: your child’s words, another person’s response to those words, and your child’s thoughts and feelings about their peer’s response. Parents can discuss why the interaction worked, or didn’t work, and how future communications can be improved.
Teach tolerance. Being part of a peer group means being flexible. If your child is invited to go bowling, he should go, even if he doesn’t like bowling. He was invited because someone wants to spend time with him. If he says “no” whenever he doesn’t like the activity, he may stop getting invited to outings because the other kids might assume he’s not interested in spending time with them.
Give praise. Kids can’t learn what they should be doing if we don’t praise them for what they’re doing well. That’s why it’s important to offer recognition of and praise for behaviors we do want, such as thinking about others, being flexible, and putting effort into social relationships.
The ADHD executive function liabilities are not gender-specific. Girls with ADHD struggle too. But I don’t teach girls because I did not have the experience of growing up female.
Just as girls need friendships with girls, boys need friendships with boys. They do not need social skills groups or role playing; research shows that clinic-based social skills groups offer no benefit to kids with ADHD. Boys need male role models to help them understand social communication and how friendships evolve between males.
Social Skills & ADHD: Next Steps
- Download: Questions to Get Your Child Talking
- Watch: The Social Lives of Boys with ADHD
- Read: What Parents Misunderstand About Executive Function
- Read: 10 Hard (But Essential) Truths for Dads of Boys with ADHD
Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker, former school social worker, and father to a son with ADHD. He creates content at the ADHD Dude YouTube channel. Learn more at www.adhddude.com.
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