Helping Children With ADHD Thrive in Social Settings
Navigating social situations can pose challenges for children with ADHD. Understanding the obstacles they encounter in these settings is crucial for parents. From trouble focusing on conversations to controlling impulses and managing emotions, social interactions can present hurdles for children with ADHD if they don’t have the tools to help them. So, let’s discuss these challenges and actionable strategies tailored to empower parents in supporting their children. We’ll cover practical tools to bolster your child’s confidence and comfort in diverse social environments.
ADHD and Socialization
ADHD is a spectrum, and every child has their own experience. The criteria for diagnosis are standard, but the experience of ADHD can vary from person to person. Even though inattention is in it’s name, ADHD is not only a disorder of inattention/hyperactivity – it’s a disorder of executive functioning. (This is referring to the way that the mind works in order to accomplish different goals.) One child might not do well with social dynamics and cues; another child might have trouble with organization or completing tasks, such as homework.
However, regardless of how executive function symptoms show up, they all can affect a child’s ability to interact with others, causing issues or conflicts.
Here are some typical ways that ADHD may impact children’s social interactions:
Sometimes, people with ADHD may be intensely focused on one thought or preferrable activity. This can make flexibility and transition difficult for them. For instance, if a child with ADHD really wants to play on the swings, but their friend is telling them that they want to go on the monkey bars instead, it may take more mental work for them to adjust and pivot to compromise with their friend.
Similarly, people with ADHD often keep multiple thoughts in mind simultaneously, making it complicated to focus and engage with one thing. For instance, if a child with ADHD is listening to their friend tell a story about their weekend, they might not be as attentive. They might be thinking about their own weekend plans as well as other interests, questions, and thoughts all at the same time. With ADHD, the thought and topic of thought can change rapidly. This does not mean that they don’t care about their friend, but it can cause some tension and decreased social engagement.
Some people with ADHD tend to internalize parts of conversations, meaning that they feel like they are communicating more information than they actually are.
For example, let’s say two friends are deciding where to play at the park; the child with ADHD prefers monkey bars because they just learned a cool new trick to show their friend, but the friend wants to run to the swings. The child with ADHD may believe that they are communicating their reasoning, but the friend feels that they’re just demanding to go to the monkey bars with them. It is common for people with ADHD to believe they are explaining more about their thoughts and feelings than they actually are. This is due to a simple difference in executive function in their brain, but to the other child, this might seem rude or confusing.
This could understandably cause misunderstandings, especially with younger peers who do not yet have the grown-up ability to infer meaning or make allowance for people who think differently. This can also cause frustration for the child with ADHD because they may feel unheard or ignored.
Impulsiveness and Frustration
Children with ADHD tend to struggle with impulse control as their minds may be moving at a faster pace than those of their peers. They can feel big emotions and act on them without much thought. This could sometimes lead to conflict and frustration, which they would feel more strongly than their neurotypical peers. Children with ADHD may not always understand the consequences for their quick, impulsive actions as they may find it difficult to envision the possibility of a negative outcome.
Tips for Support
A parent or guardian’s support can make a huge difference in the social experience of a child with ADHD. Here are some specific strategies you can use to address particular challenges mentioned above:
- Encourage mental pauses – help your child learn to slow down and assess their own thought processes to become more self-aware. When you notice that a child is getting frustrated or needs to re-focus, try the following script: “Okay, pause. What are you thinking about right now? What are you feeling?” Guide them through understanding their thoughts and feelings.
- Practice socialization in supervised playdates – peer interactions outside of structured time, such as school or home, can be beneficial in helping children with ADHD practice socializing with peers in unfamiliar settings. Through controlled immersion and exposure, they can improve skills of self-control, communication, flexibility, and compromise. The amount of parental control depends on the age of the children; ideally, at least one adult should be present to watch for signs of conflict or discomfort and be able to step in to mediate, initiate a pause, or resolve an issue.
- Maintain routines – making daily life predictable is a big part of helping a child with ADHD regulate their own emotions. Transitions can be difficult, so sticking to an organizational structure is key to ensuring their mental wellbeing and continued growth. If a change needs to be made, give them a heads up in advance, using the “next, then” technique: basically, laying out the full plan for them to know what is coming, what transitions to expect, and how they can feel ready for it.
Most importantly, it’s essential for parents to adopt an open and flexible approach, understanding and embracing their child’s unique needs and cognitive style. Recognizing what aids their child’s focus and actively supporting that particular approach is key to helping them socialize successfully. Additionally, ensuring that the educational team surrounding the child is informed and connected with the child’s specific needs is vital. Effective communication becomes the cornerstone, allowing for a collaborative and informed approach between parents and the educational support system. This collaboration not only fosters an environment conducive to the child’s growth and development but also ensures a tailored approach to their education and well-being.
If you or a family member needs behavioral and/or mental health treatment, but aren’t sure where to start, read more here or call 888-764-4161. We’re here to support!
About the Expert
Alexa Brown is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with PM Behavioral Health, practicing in Connecticut and New York. She has eight years of experience as a medical social worker, focusing on phases of life changes, grief, loss, and next steps. Alexa approaches her therapy sessions with play and artistic outlets.