Friendships play an important role in a child’s development. Unfortunately, for a child with ADHD who struggles with social skills, impulse control, a short attention span, difficulties with self-regulation, moodiness, disruptive behaviors, disorganization and other issues that can strain a relationship, friendships may be few and far between. This can lead to increased feelings of loneliness and isolation.
To top it off, when kids don’t develop and learn the skills they need to make friends, it may compound relationship problems as they move into adulthood. Dr. Amori Yee Mikami at the University of Virginia is researching ways in which parents can encourage and help their children make and keep friends. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to interview Dr. Mikami about the importance of friendship for youth with ADHD.
Q: Can you explain a bit about the difference between peer acceptance and friendships?
A: A child who is peer accepted is regarded positively in the peer group. This means that most peers might say that they like this child. Friendship is a close, mutual, reciprocal relationship between two children. What this means is that it is possible for a child to be peer accepted such that he or she is generally thought of well by peers, but not actually have any close friends that he or she can turn to or can share secrets with. However, a child could also have a good friend, but not be accepted by the peer group at large.
Children with ADHD often struggle with peer acceptance. However, if parents can work on building up even one or two good friends for the child, this may help the child in the future, even if the child remains unaccepted by the peer group at large.
Q: In what ways can the presence of one or two positive friendships serve as a protective factor for kids with ADHD?
A: Interactions with good friends can help a child with ADHD develop and practice social skills such as sharing, negotiation, trust, and empathy. Even if a child with ADHD remains unaccepted by the peer group at large, having at least one good friend can help the child to feel less lonely, and may also prevent the child from being teased during school (because the friend will stick up for him or her).
Q: What areas of friendship seem to be most difficult for kids with ADHD?
A: Children with ADHD tend to have trouble making friends and also keeping friends. When they do have friendships, they tend on average to have more conflict and less emotional support than do the friendships of typically-developing children. However, parents can work on these things with their kids.
Q: What role can parents play to help their child develop positive friendships?
A: Parents can help by observing their child during extracurricular activities or in the neighborhood and scoping out potential friends for their child. The potential friends should be other children who seem initially inclined to get along with (or at least to not dislike) the child and who have shared interests with the child. Then parents might host a fun, well-supervised playdate between the child and a potential friend.
Q: How do friendships change as kids move from the elementary, to middle school, to teenage years?
A: Friendships tend to deepen and to become more intimate. Teenagers will want to spend more time with their friends than will younger children. This progression is normal and it highlights the growing importance of these peer relationships in children’s lives.
Amori Yee Mikami, Ph.D. Interview/email correspondence. March 28, 2011.