Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often experience problems in their relationships with peers. As a parent, it can be very difficult to see your child struggle to make and keep friends. You may find that your son or daughter is not receiving invitations to birthday parties of classmates and is seldom asked for play dates or sleepovers. For your child, this rejection and isolation can be doubly painful over time.
In order for friendships to grow and be maintained, a child must be able to control impulses, take turns, cooperate, share, listen, be empathetic, attentive and focused, communicate effectively with others, be aware of and respond to social cues, and have an ability to problem-solve situations and resolve conflicts as they arise -- all skill areas that can be challenging for a child with ADHD.
How Do ADHD Related Difficulties Affect Social Behaviors?
Children with ADHD often interact in ways that can provoke negative reactions from peers. Some may try to dominate play or engage in ways that are too aggressive, demanding, and intrusive. They may have trouble joining in with peers in the things their peers like to do. Instead, they may want to make their own set of rules, or engage in bossy, "unfair" or non-compliant ways, and generally may have a hard time knowing how to cooperate with other kids the same age.
Many kids with ADHD have a hard time picking up on and reading social cues. Others may become bored easily, get distracted and "check out" on friends. Problems with attention and self-control can interfere with opportunities to acquire social skills through observational learning. Many kids with ADHD also have a hard time managing difficult feelings and can very quickly become overwhelmed, frustrated and emotionally reactive.
Impulsive reactions, hyperactive, or distracted behaviors may be viewed as not only frustrating and irritating, but also as insensitive to the needs of others, and so the child is further avoided and rejected, and deemed less and less likeable within the group.
Skills Learned from Peer Groups
Experiences and relationships within a peer group can have a profound effect on a child's development. Through these connections, a child learns how to have reciprocal friendships and how to make and maintain healthy relationships with others. Through peer groups, a child learns the rules and skills of social exchange including cooperation, negotiation, and conflict resolution. Unfortunately, symptoms of ADHD can impair a child's ability to observe, understand, and respond to his or her social environment.
Because of difficulties with self-control, many kids with ADHD tend to react without thinking through the consequences of their behavior or of the impact their behavior can have on others around them. In addition, they can have a hard time learning from past experiences. This disruptive or "insensitive" behavior is often viewed as purposeful and deliberate; as a result, the child with ADHD may be labeled as a "troublemaker" and be further avoided and quickly rejected by the wider group. Once stuck with such a label, it can become even more difficult for the child to overcome this negative reputation and connect positively with peers even as he or she begins to make positive changes in social skills.
Some kids with ADHD isolate themselves because of repeated failures in friendships, feelings of wariness and reticence with others, and plummeting feelings of self-confidence. Problems are then compounded because when children avoid or disengage from others, they no longer have opportunities to learn adaptive skills, and as a result, they develop ever lower peer competencies. These deficits in social skills can certainly take a toll and have a negative effect on a child as he or she grows and moves into adolescence and adulthood.
If your child is struggling with peer relationships, know that it is important that you target peer problems directly and over the long term. The good news is that you can help your child develop these social skills and competencies. Being aware of the social difficulties that can be associated with ADHD and understanding how your child's own ADHD is negatively impacting his or her relationships is the first step. With this information, you can then begin to move forward in a solution-focused way to help your child develop positive social and friendship skills. Read More on Helping Your Child Improve Social Skills
Betsy Hoza, PhD, Peer Functioning in Children With ADHD. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 32(6) pp. 655-663, 2007.
Thomas E. Brown, PhD, Attention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults. Yale University Press, 2005.