The need for social interaction begins in infancy. When a baby stares at his mother’s face and returns her loving smile, a social exchange takes place. Humans are social creatures. We all crave the social connection with others that enriches our lives and gives us a sense of belonging. For a child with ADHD, developing and maintaining social relationships with others, especially his peers, is often difficult and frustrating. Let’s look at a few reasons why the child with ADHD cannot seem to find acceptance in social settings or make and sustain friendships. If we, as parents and teachers, understand the deficit in the social skills of children with ADHD, we will be better equipped to help them open the door to the joy of friendship.
“Here Comes Jack! Everybody Run!”
If you are a teacher, have you ever heard a similar command on the playground? It may have sounded innocent enough, but it may have been an incident worth paying attention to. Children with ADHD are often shunned, and teased mercilessly by their peers. Jack is thrilled to be on the playground with his fourth grade classmates and is unable to understand why they scatter when he approaches them. Jack has ADHD. He is overbearing, loud, and pouts when he does not get to take the first turn. He shoves people to get to the beginning of the line. He cannot control his emotional reaction and starts crying when someone tells him to go to the end and wait his turn. Jack’s behaviors are not intentional, but are symptomatic of ADHD. The other kids tell him they don’t want to play anymore, and secretly re-group without him on the other side of the playground. Jack resigns himself to playing tag with the second graders.
“Girls Just Want to Have Fun”
ADHD signs and symptoms are not the same in all children. Kate is in fifth grade. She is quiet and withdrawn. She has trouble making appropriate conversation with girls her age. Her maturity level is not on par with her peers. She wishes she were a part of the group from her class that sits together every day in the cafeteria. She watches them giggle and laugh and wonders what they’re whispering about. Kate is disorganized, messy and bites her fingernails. When standing in line, she often stands too close to others. She does not understand the concept of personal space. She’s just trying to make a friend. The other girls in the class make fun of her, and pretend not to notice her if she looks like she is going to try to sit with them. Kate doesn’t get invited to birthday parties or sleepovers. She knows doesn’t fit in, but she doesn’t know what to do about it.
“Why Is Billy a Bully?”
Some children with ADHD have problems with anger, impulse control, and aggression. Billy’s reputation as a bully has gotten around school. His peers avoid him, teachers dread seeing him coming and his parents are at their wit’s end. Billy is exasperated with kids saying he was weird. He rarely makes eye contact, and he is constantly on the move. He taps his hands on his desk, nervously shakes his legs whenever he’s sitting and hums when he’s taking a test. Billy is bigger than most of his friends, so he finds it easy to intimidate them. He would love to be included when the boys are on the basketball court at recess, but he’s never invited to join in. His frustration and low self-esteem intensifies his anger, so he lashes out with verbal and sometimes physical attacks.
How Can We Help?
Children with ADHD want to have friends and be a part of social circles at school, in their communities and even in their own families. There are a number of things parents and teachers can do to help these children overcome some of their social shortcomings. Therapists and healthcare providers can also be helpful for children who need intervention.
Model and Support Appropriate Behavior
All children look to the adults in their lives for guidance and support. If you are dealing with a child with ADHD, it is important to show, not tell. When chaos occurs as the result of an ADHD meltdown, be calm, patient and understanding. Be sure to offer lots of positive praise if you notice the child is trying to follow your example. Reinforce positive behavior by talking to the child after the episode and letting him know how proud you were when he sat down when you asked him to, or refrained from slamming the door in anger.
Create a Positive Learning Environment at Home and at School
Teachers can set their students up for success and encourage social interaction by setting up a positive learning environment. Pay attention to your student’s social interactions and try to pair kids together who seem to be compatible. Verbalize strengths you notice in your students, especially those with ADHD. Maybe Jack is a great artist, or Kate is a whiz at spelling. Calling attention to positive characteristics will help overcome some of the negative ideas kids have in their minds.
Bully or Leader? It’s All in the Attitude
No one likes a bully. The child with ADHD who is bossy, aggressive, loud and hard to manage needs a job. Channel some of those negatives into positives. Ask the child to head up a group to clean up the school grounds. Sit down with him and discuss good leadership skills. Ask him to think of ways to work well with the clean-up crew and have him write them down. Praise him for guiding the team using the skills you’ve discussed.
Help Students Discover Common Interests
The child who feels like an outcast, like Kate, may need some help when it comes to forming friendships. Do a classroom activity that will encourage students to talk about their hobbies and interests. Pair them up in small groups to work on a project together. Interests shared outside of school can be a catalyst to friendship in the classroom.
Create a Climate of Tolerance in the Classroom
Sometimes kids just need to hear that being different is ok. Use any opportunity to let children talk about those differences and the importance of accepting people for who they are. School days are days of learning, growing, and making memories. We can help our kids with ADHD master the art of socialization by giving them opportunities and the tools they need to make it happen.