ADHD kids often struggle with making and keeping friends. Social skills training can help. Learn about practical strategies for parents to improve social skills training.
Does your ADHD child struggle to make and keep friends? There’s a reason for that. ADHD often impairs basic social skills of kids and interferes with social relationships. Ultimately, this can lead to peer rejection and social isolation.
Common ADHD traits such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness can undermine social connection with others in numerous ways. In social groups, ADHD kids may be loud and annoying, which can make it hard for them to get along with others in the group. Also, some kids with ADHD can be easily provoked and often act out angrily. This behavior can end up tanking their friendships.
Despite the issues that kids with ADHD have in social situations, they are often unaware of being annoying or disruptive. As a result, they may not understand why they lack friends and face rejection. And, not surprisingly, being shunned by peers can lead to low self-esteem.
Although you can’t really make friends for your child, you can still help him better navigate social situations. Social skills training can help your child recognize social issues and develop more appropriate behaviors in social situations. Follow these practical strategies for parents to improve your child’s social skills training.
10 PARENTAL STRATEGIES FOR HELPING ADHD KIDS WITH SOCIAL SKILLS TRAINING
1. RECOGNIZE THAT JOINING ORGANIZED GROUPS IS NOT ENOUGH FOR SOCIAL SKILLS TRAINING
It may seem like one easy way to help a socially challenged kid improve his social skills would simply be to increase the opportunities for social interaction. So, your instinct might be to sign her up for some sports teams, scouting groups or other clubs and activities. But, just signing her up for the nearest youth group can be largely ineffective and possibly counterproductive.
According to the experts at Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), just inserting an ADHD kid into group settings like scouting or sports isn’t really an effective intervention for troubled peer relationships. The adults supervising such activities, such as coaches and troop leaders, typically aren’t trained to implement effective peer interventions. Indeed, many of these grown-ups will simply be well-intentioned parents with little or no knowledge about ADHD and potential associated issues.
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2. BE YOUR CHILD’S SOCIAL MIRROR
Kids with ADHD often don’t recognize their social problems, and they’ll commit social blunders without realizing it. They usually have no clue what they are doing wrong. Gentle guidance and support from you can help your child learn how to behave in social situations.
In a private, non-charged moment, discuss specific behaviors you’ve observed and why they may create problems with friends or potential friends.
When you notice social cues that your child isn’t picking up on, explain them to him or her. Help them by discussing what went wrong, the likely reasons why, and what can be done differently next time. Be very specific.
And remember, when having such a conversation, you want to be helpful but sensitive. Focus on one or two specific observations rather than laying out a litany of possible social defects. Too much negative feedback can hurt your child’s self-esteem.
Example: Personal Space
So, for instance, say you’ve noticed that your kid tends to rush up excitedly when she sees kids she knows at the playground and gets right in their faces. You can say “do you see how Susie is backing away? That means that you are standing too close to her. Back up just a little bit.” When your child complies, offer positive reinforcement and praise.
And, you could also try this social skills training tip: Agree on a discreet visual signal you can use to let child know that targeted behavior is happening so that it’s called to his attention. For instance, in the U.S., a good personal space bubble during conversation is about 2 to 4 feet. So, you could tell your child that she should stand about 3 or so steps away from people when talking to non-family members. And, a hand signal could be tapping the back of your hand with 3 fingers.
(By the way, if you need a great book to help explain the concept of “personal space” to your child, check out Personal Space Camp, by Julia Cook!)
3. BUILD UP YOUR PARENT-CHILD RELATIONSHIP
Experts say that intentionally cultivating your own individual relationship with your child can lead to better friendships with peers. Start by planning 15 minutes of focused special time with your child several times a week. The sole purpose of these focused period is to have fun – without judgment or criticism. Follow your child’s lead rather than directing the activity yourself. Some studies show that when parents focusing on building strong relationships at home better peer relationships can quickly follow.
Also, when you have a more positive and trusting relationship, your child will be more likely to seek you out when social problems arise. And, when your child does approach you about problems with friends or peers, start by listening and being empathetic. You should give her a chance to express her feelings and validate them before suggesting what could be done differently next time.
4. ACTIVELY MODEL AND PRACTICE GOOD SPORTSMANSHIP
Good sportsmanship can often be a problem for ADHD kids. This can range from being a very sore loser when things don’t go their way to being an overly obnoxious winner when victorious.
My kid provides a prime example of this. If something doesn’t go his way in the middle of the game, he’s often been known to knock the whole board over or toss a video controller across the room. While a clear win can trigger leaping from his chair to shout “I won! I won! You lost, you lost! ” or “Hey, hey, hey, you’re the loser!”, complete with Spongebob-worthy booty shake. No child (and very few adults) react well to this display.
So, to help address this you can actively model good sportsmanship and give him a chance to practice in the privacy of your home. You can do this with simple board games, or activities in your backyard. The point is to practice following the rules, not cheating, and waiting for your turn. And, before the game starts, you can provide reminders and prompts about appropriate ways to experience disappointment or joy.
And, meanwhile, if your child has problems with competitive play, you can steer him towards games and athletic activities that don’t inherently require competition. For instance, martial arts or swimming. Check out this Q&A on Understood.org for specific tips on helping your kid not be a sore loser.
5. USE SOCIAL STORIES
The use of social stories can be an excellent strategy for social skills training. Social stories are simple stories told through words and pictures that teach or remind kids about appropriate social behavior in everyday situations. They are a common intervention for kids on the autism spectrum, but they also work for ADHD kids as well.
Social stories are similar to role playing in that they are targeted stories that depict a character that your child can identify with who faces and works through various social challenges. A social story will target a specific problem issue (like taking turns or not interrupting) using simple words and pictures. The story describes the steps a child should take or describe how to behave in a specific situation.
You can make your own social stories with your child using drawings, cut-outs from magazines or pictures downloaded from the internet. For more tips on creating your own social stories, check out How To Make Your Own Social Stories For Free.
Although they won’t necessarily be tailored to your child’s situation, you can also find free stories to download on the internet. Or, you can purchase more polished stories commercially.
Other Resources for Social Stories:
- For examples of the use of social stories in action, check out The Foolproof Way to Improve Your ADHD Child’s Social Skills
- Sources for downloadable social stories
- Social stories for purchase: The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 15th Anniversary Edition, created by Carol Gray who first originated the concept of social stories (includes CD of printable and editable social stories that you can adapt for your child).
6. BE PROACTIVE AND INTENTIONAL ABOUT PLAYDATES FOR SOCIAL SKILLS TRAINING
Playdates can be one of the best and most effective ways to help your child cultivate and improve social skills and relationships. This is a strategy for which you have some of the most control and opportunity to influence the outcome. But, it’s also the most time consuming and possibly the most nerve wracking.
Organizing playdates can be inherently challenging. Parents can be concerned about working around homework and activity schedules. And, the weekends may either be filled with competing activities or blocked off for basic family time.
Things like homework, tutoring, and dinner are required to be accommodated. Optional playdates are not. Particularly optional playdates where you have to reach out to parents you may not know well. And, where you may have concerns that your kid will behave in a reliably appropriate manner.
If you’re reluctant to schedule playdates, you’re not alone. Apparently ADHD kids end up having only a fraction of the number of playdates as their non-ADHD peers.
The Primacy of Playdates
Existing research shows that playdates are the cornerstone for cultivating meaningful friendships between kids. No matter how much children interact in organized activities, they are unlikely to develop and maintain a close friendship without spending significant one-on-one time together on playdates.
It’s difficult to connect with someone on a personal level if you’re not actually spending personal one-on-one time together. It’s like the difference between having lunch with a work buddy rather than rolling along with a group.
7 Steps To An Effective Playdate That Advances Social Skills Training
Here are some basic tips for planning playdates with an eye toward improving your child’s social skills.
(1) Select the right play partner.
One-on-one play dates usually work best for children with ADHD. They’re the best way to build close friendships. They are much less intimidating for a child who struggles with social skills. And, with threesomes, it’s easy for one of the kids to feel left out at some point, and provides more opportunity for conflict.
(2) Select the right play setting.
According to experts, playdates at home are more likely to lead to meaningful friendships. Also, your child is more likely to be more comfortable in his own home, and you’ll have less issues about what rules need to be followed.
(3) Prep your child for the playdate.
In advance of the playdate, plan a focused discussion with your child about what to expect. If you’ve already identified known problem areas, now is the time to raise them and discuss a planned solution. Specifically discuss what it means to share and to take turns, and what’s acceptable when hosting a friend in your home.
If your child has certain toys that he struggles to share, then discuss how this will be handled.
So, for instance, we once had a neighbor’s child who had a handheld video game that he loved to show off, but hated to actually share with guests. At a playdate, neighbor child proudly showed off his game and skills. Guest: “That’s neat. Can I have a turn to play?” Neighbor Child: “No, but you can watch me play! Said with a friendly grin and an oddly gracious tone of voice. His mom was present and apparently had no issue with this exchange. I log this in the category of not-successful-playdate.
I get that you shouldn’t force kids to share special toys or most favored toys, but it would be far better for everyone if you put them away while guests are over. You can explain that no one is being punished, and that they will be returned once the guests are gone.
(4) Create structure for the playdate.
Plan enough activities so that there’s minimal unstructured time. You want both kids to have fun without any significant conflict. You don’t have to make elaborate plans or script every possible moment. But, if you’re incorporating playdates as part of your social skills training, plan one substantial project that they can work on cooperatively. For instance, making pizza or some other cooking adventure.
Here are some ideas for other cooperative projects that can be completed within a couple of hours:
(5) Have a defined time and duration.
You should keep the playdate short with a defined start and end time. For younger children, under age 8, less than two hours should be more than sufficient. And, if your kid is on the younger end, or this is a first playdate with a particular friend, keep it closer to an hour.
Kids in the age 8 to 10+ range can probably handle 3 hours, but anything much longer than that will likely be burdensome. And, you run the risk of diminishing returns on the time investment.
(6) Monitor and redirect as necessary.
Although you don’t need to hover, you should closely monitor the ongoing interactions. If something’s going awry, guide your child to more proper behavior discreetly. Either whisper a reminder or pull him aside into another room for a quick chat. But try not to end the playdate prematurely unless you’re facing a true disaster.
(7) Post-playdate review and feedback.
After the playdate, make a point of reviewing how things went with your child. Start with getting his view of how things went. Then provide your feedback in a non-critical or judgmental manner. And remember to reinforce all positive behavior, even if it’s small.
7. CULTIVATE RELATIONSHIPS WITH PARENTS OF YOUR CHILD’S PEERS
Making the effort to connect personally on a grown-up level with your child’s peers can also help your social skills training efforts. According to ADHD experts who focus on social skills, networking and building good relationships with other parents can help those parents and their kids develop better attitudes towards your own ADHD child. And, when you have a parent-to-parent relationship, it makes it far easier to pull together some regular playdates.
8. CREATE A PLAN FOR TEASING OR BULLYING
All kids get teased at some point. That’s pretty much a fact of life. But kids with ADHD often don’t know how to respond to playful banter or light ribbing. You should work with him to develop proportionate responses that don’t escalate the situation.
There’s a difference between teasing and bullying. But it can be difficult for even a socially adept child to always tell the difference. Generally, bullying is intended to hurt a child, while teasing, usually, is not.
That said, your child should always be empowered to say that he doesn’t like something and politely ask the other person to stop. In a true teasing situation, the other child will stop (with or without some degree of awkwardness). But, if the other child persists, that crosses the line into bullying.
For specific strategies to help your kid deal with bullies, check out How to Help Your Child Defend Against Bullies. But whatever strategies or responses you settle upon, be sure it’s clear to your child that he should always report bullying.
9. SET UP A TOKEN/REWARD SYSTEM FOCUSED ON SOCIAL SKILLS TRAINING
Developing effective strategies for managing your ADHD child’s behavior is a key ADHD fact for parents. And, experts often recommend implementing some version of a token or reward system. While this tool is often recommended to manage behavior generally, experts say that you can also successfully apply this tool specifically to social skills training.
Here are the basic steps for incorporating a token or reward system into your social skills training:
- Identify only one or two social behaviors to focus on over the course of one to two weeks. For younger kids, start with one behavior for one week.
- Set up a visual tracking system or chart. It’s something that should be obvious for you and your child, but not for friends who you’re hosting on playdates (or unhelpful relatives).
- Designate the reward or token that will be issued when the target behavior is demonstrated, and track it on the chart. (For instance, one star for every observed instance of sharing or turn taking that did not require a prompt. Five stars = xyz reward.)
- Create or look for opportunities where you can observe your child demonstrating the focus behavior. Discreetly praise and reward child when you observe the behavior. (You should provide some sort of praise and acknowledgement as soon as possible after your child took the action.)
10. Role Play Social Scenarios for Social Skills Training
Social skills are something that kids have to practice often to learn. Schools have students rehearse for plays and coaches practice before big games, so why not “rehearse” social situations too? Role-playing can be an engaging way of helping your child or teen learn how to respond appropriately in awkward social situations. Here are some social role plays that you can use in your social skills training.
Social-Role Plays for Grade School Kids
- Pretend that your child is having dinner at a friend’s house. Teach them ways to respond when their meal is wrong.
- Pretend that you are at a birthday party. Go over what to do when the other kids are ignoring your child.
- Role-play a mock picnic with friends. Practice making small talk with other kids who might also be at the picnic.
- Walk through how to ask to join a group at recess.
- Practice a situation that requires a compromise – like deciding what game to play or what movie to watch.
Social Role-Play for Tweens/Teens
- Middle school and high school kids are often required to work collectively on group projects. Role play that scenario. Specifically, how to suggest an idea, provide feedback on the suggestions of others, and respectfully express disagreement.
- Walk through how to say no to risky or inappropriate activities. Also, role-play asking parents or other adults for help if they do not feel comfortable in a situation, such as a party where everyone is drinking.
POTENTIAL SKILLS TO TARGET IN SOCIAL SKILLS TRAINING
Whether it’s creating a social story, setting up a reward system or planning a playdate, you should have specific skills in mind that you want to improve. Here’s a list of fundamental social skills that are important for good peer relationships generally, as well as for promoting individual friendships.
Review the list to identify which ones your child seems to struggle with the most and start your social skills training there.
- Taking turns
- Personal space
- Being a gracious winner
- Being a good sport
- Moderating volume and tone of voice
- Refraining from interrupting
- Recognizing nonverbal cues
- Common body language and its meaning
- Conflict resolution
TARGETED BOOKS FOR PARENTS: CREATING A SOCIAL SKILLS TRAINING PLAN
You can also find books that will help you work on social skills training in a structured an intentional way. Here are two such examples:
Created by child therapist Natasha Daniels (the creator of AnxiousToddlers.com), this recently released book targets families with kids who struggle to make friends, or who often misunderstand social cues. It contains a compilation of activities to help school-aged children practice the essential skills for making and keeping friends.
This book helps parents teach the hidden rules of social behavior to children with limited social skills. It’s divided into discrete sections that parents can work through one week at a time. And, it includes tailored worksheets.
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