Ask Scary Mommy is Scary Mommy’s advice column, where our team of “experts” answers all the questions you have about life, love, body image, friends, parenting, and anything else that’s confusing you.
This week: What do you do when your child’s ADHD gets in the way of forming friendships? Have your own question? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Dear Scary Mommy,
My 9-year-old son has ADHD, and he has a lot of trouble making friends. While his two siblings are always getting invited to playdates and birthday parties, he is not. He says he plays by himself at recess, and it just makes me so sad. He is a sweet, wonderful kid, but I feel like his ADHD is setting him up for friendship failure. I don’t want him to be lonely and I don’t want his social skills to be lacking. How can I help?
From one parent of an ADHD kid to another: I feel you. Nothing breaks my mama heart like the feeling of seeing my son left out of the social events that are the hallmark of childhood.
Kids with ADHD can have trouble making friends because, as anyone who’s ever raised one knows, they can be … a lot. Impulsive, with seemingly-boundless energy, jumping passionately from this topic to that one, sometimes not sensitive to social cues. And when other kids aren’t used to that, they can shy away from interacting. It isn’t fair, because our ADHD kiddos can’t help it — but sometimes by just being themselves, they suffer the consequences.
First, though, make sure your son is actually lonely before you try to remedy it. In my son’s case, he is absolutely fine on his own – it was me, not him, who was worried about his lack of friendships. Unnecessarily, I might add, which I learned when he tartly informed me after another failed attempt at friend-matchmaking that he’d “rather be alone.” I was so afraid that he’d be lonely that I failed to see how little it actually bothered him. Now, at almost sixteen years old, his social skills have caught up to him and he has those connections he always seemed to lack before. But not many, because to him, it’s quality over quantity; he’d rather have a close friend or two than a whole posse.
If your child does seem to be lonely, though, there are things you can do to help. It wouldn’t hurt to talk to his teacher, explain the issue, and see if he or she would be able to steer him toward kids he seems to get along best with. As the person with the closest daily view of his interactions with his peers, a teacher can be a valuable asset when it comes to forging social connections. Ask them (or the guidance counselor) to pair your son up with another kid who might be a little on the quirky side; you never know who else might be struggling with friendships.
You can also work on the social skills at home – or with relatives, like grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins — that may not come as naturally to kids with ADHD. Practice the things that seem obvious to neurotypical folks, like not standing too close when you talk to someone, waiting your turn to speak, lowering the volume of your voice, and not hopping around or avoiding eye contact. Remind him to speak slowly and listen to his friends, and be sure to offer a lot of praise when you catch him using good social skills.
Look to your son’s interests for guidance on social opportunities, too; you can find a group or club related to just about anything. And when the interest or hobby is the main focus, not the social interaction, it can be easier. Your son will already have something in common with the other kids, a ready-made conversation starter. My computer-loving son had a good time at our library’s twice-monthly tween Minecraft club meeting, and he talked to other like-minded kids when he normally wouldn’t have.
When you do find a kid or two that your son would like to get to know better, a one-on-one playdate in an intimate setting (say, your house rather than a kid-infested Chuck E. Cheese) is your best bet to start with. Sometimes kids with ADHD get easily overstimulated, and the fewer things they have to process at one time the better. The less scattered their focus, the more likely they are to be able to concentrate on interacting.
ADDitude Magazine has a fantastic resource guide with suggestions on how to help kids with ADHD make friends and partake in social activities.
It’s hard to watch our kids struggle, and sometimes it seems like nobody sees anything except the ADHD. But with a little guidance (and a lot of patience), your son will find the true friends he deserves.