Friends at School

Will My Child Find a Best Friend This School Year?

Social skills may not come naturally to kids with ADHD, who may seem bossy or oblivious, attract bullies, or hide in video games. Here’s how to help your child make friends (and keep them) this year.

Bossy. Irritating. Loud. Spacey. Random. Children and teens with ADHD are called all these things. We see their genuine and loving hearts, but they have trouble keeping, making, and being accepted by friends. And that is heartbreaking.

When parents help strengthen social skills in kids with ADHD, however, friendships can blossom into lifelong relationships. Here are tips for different age groups as your student heads into the school year.

Elementary School

The Wallflower: Doesn’t mix in and is passively social

Walking the rim of the playground, sitting alone at lunch, rarely invited to “hang,” these kids spend a lot of time alone. One encounter with rejection, real or perceived, will stop them from trying to initiate a friendship again.

What you can do:

Explain to your child that people want to hear from her; she matters! Encourage your child to “use her words” to express her needs. Practice conversations she will have in daily life with teachers, bus drivers, coaches, and grandparents. Encourage her to express emotions and build self-advocacy and communication skills.

The root problem here may be low self-esteem, as children with ADHD often expect alienation, regardless of what they do. Find a place for her to shine. What are her superpowers? How can she use them? Where can you find like-minded kids? It is easier to persuade younger kids to try new things, so now is the time to introduce new activities and groups. Friends build confidence and assuage loneliness.

[Download: Free Guide to Activities and Sports for Kids with ADHD]

The Boss: “This is how we’re gonna do it!”

Some kids tell everyone what to do and how to do it. They don’t adapt to group norms, take turns, or share in decision-making. They insist they are right and don’t know when to compromise or let things go.

What you can do:

When you catch your child being flexible, say, “I love it when you adapt to the circumstances.” When she acts inflexible, try to understand her point of view by asking open-ended questions, such as “What makes this so hard?”

Coach her daily in the art of compromise, discussing ways she can meet friends halfway, such as by sharing a toy or taking turns. In those moments, use a code word to cue her, or ask, “What can you do to be flexible?” If possible, she can also practice these skills with siblings at home.

Some children do not realize that their tone may be off-putting. Ask, “Have you heard a rude tone in others? How did it make you feel?” Tell her of a time when you used the wrong tone and ask her to do the same.

[Watch: Raising Socially Smart Tweens & Teens]

Middle School

The Irritator: Too much, too often, and too long

These kids keep telling the fart joke long after everyone stopped laughing. They poke, physically or verbally, exhaust, rush in, talk incessantly, and overwhelm their peers.

What you can do:

Saying the wrong thing at the wrong time demonstrates weak self-regulation, a core symptom of ADHD. To strengthen self-regulation, ask your tween what it feels like to be calm versus excited. Agree, in advance, to ask in the moment, “How do you feel in your body right now?” Practice calming strategies, such as deep breathing and havening (a technique to reduce anxiety and stress), as well as doing serotonin- and dopamine-inducing activities, like jumping jacks, running, and pushups.

Ask open-ended questions to prompt your child to reflect on actions and thoughts, such as, “What steps are involved in connecting with and making friends?” Tuning into and understanding nuanced subtext, body language, feelings, mood, and hot buttons is a key life skill.

The Over-Pleaser: Tries too hard

Some kids pursue friends too intensely and with an air of desperation. They accept whatever their friends dish out and come back for more. They assume the clown role and run themselves down with self-effacing humor.

What you can do:

These kids need help recognizing their own gifts and contributions. Feeling confident is key to feeling valued. Find a place where your child can engage and build her strengths. Talk about friendship in general so your teen will open up to you. Help her evaluate friendships: what to expect, her own contributions, how she wants to be treated, and how to use her strengths to problem-solve.

High School

The Instigator: Causes controversy and acts rude

Most kids don’t mean to be rude, but with ADHD—and its accompanying weak communication and executive functioning skills—some come off that way. Pot stirrers use drama and conflict to stimulate their brains. Even “sweet” kids can blame, lash out on social media, gossip, and tell secrets.

What you can do:

Collaborate on creating a code word to use when her tone is abrasive. Ask, “Did you mean to sound harsh?” Ask your teen to figuratively step into someone else’s shoes to interpret how her behavior might have made her friend feel. When you witness an emotional situation, later, respectfully ask, “How do you think she feels when you correct her? What did you mean to do? What do you think is going on in your friend’s life? What did you notice about her reaction to the situation? How might you have acted differently?”

The Over-Reactor: Overly emotional

For some kids, a harmless comment can trigger a tailspin of rejection sensitive dysphoria. An inability to compromise, cope with losing, and manage disappointment and other emotions can turn off peers.

What you can do:

Help your teen recognize the body signals that indicate she is having an emotional reaction. This could be a racing heartbeat, flushed cheeks, and sweaty palms. Teach her calming strategies. Create a support plan she can use in the heat of the moment, such as breathing techniques. Then, when a big reaction erupts, she will have a plan to help her reduce adrenaline and move from a heightened reactive state to a calmer, thoughtful state.

Get Your Kid to Open Up

Being told what to do makes all of us shut down. Asking your kid open-ended questions is a coaching technique that helps her to become more aware of her own and others’ points of view. It can be used anywhere and anytime to help her pause, self-regulate, and avoid conflict.

Avoid long, drawn-out conversations. Keep your questions short and truly listen for your child’s perspective. If you stay curious and open, you will learn invaluable information. Talk about friendship in general, rather than bringing up her past mistakes. Sample questions can include:

  • What do your friends talk about?
  • How comfortable are you jumping into a conversation?
  • What happens in the hallway when you change classes? What are kids doing then?
  • How do you know you have something in common with another kid?
  • What makes you think someone might be friendly or approachable?

Social Skills with ADHD: Next Steps

Caroline Maguire, M.Ed., ACCG, PCC, is a coach who works with children who struggle socially. She is the author of Why Will No One Play With Me?

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