Tips for Parents: Helping Your Child Develop Social Skills
ADHD isn’t just making it hard for your child to pay attention in class. The symptoms of the disorder interfere with his ability to make and keep friends and to interact with classmates throughout the school day, and to maintain friendships outside school hours.
Social skills impairment accompanies ADHD at all ages. For children, this impairment means they frequently have fewer friends and end up being on the outside of the social world of their classmates.
“Research suggests that the majority of elementary school-aged children with ADHD have nobody, or at most one other child, in their classroom whom they would call a friend,” says Amori Yee Mikami, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. “Even when children with ADHD do have friends, the friendships tend to be less supportive and more conflict-filled than those of children without ADHD.”
As a parent, you may be wondering when to intervene and what to do. Dr. Mikami writes in How You Can Be a Friendship Coach for Your Child with ADHD for CHADD’s Attention magazine, that parents can help their children develop social skills and build healthy friendships. She says you can begin by building a positive relationship with your child, including spending time alone in a fun activity where you are not directing or teaching your child. Listen to your child for ten minutes before offering suggestions or solutions to his problem. Your goals are to both model the behavior of a friend and to allow your child to practice friendship skills with you.
You may need to arrange playdates for your younger child. For an older child, encourage your child to invite a friend home to study together or share a meal with your family. Quietly observe your child and offer feedback that supports your child’s social skills.
Social skills feedback
When giving suggestions and feedback to help your child develop social skills, avoid negative statements, even in the cases where your child has done something wrong. Here are tips and examples of helpful and not-so-helpful comments you might offer your child as feedback for social skills:
Stay positive. Recognize and praise your child when he does something good (even if it’s a small act amid many not-so-good things he did), in order to encourage more of the good behavior in the future.
- Say this: Awesome job sharing your dolls so well! Your friend really liked that.
- Don’t say this: You shared your dolls, but then you really didn’t share your video games after that. You need to work harder on sharing the whole time.
Keep it simple. It will be easier for your child to comprehend, follow, and remember what you say.
- Say this: Nice job letting your friend go first.
- Don’t say this: You talked with your friend early on about who should go first, which your friend wanted to do, and I think it was great that you let him go first to make him feel welcomed.
Be specific. Your child needs to know exactly what behavior is expected.
- Say this: If you lose you can say “good game” to the winner.
- Don’t say this: Nobody likes it if you are a bad sport when you lose. (“Bad sport” is so general—how specifically must he act to correct it?)
Stay in the present. This is especially important when you need to give negative feedback; your child can’t do anything about the past.
- Say this: I think that Joey wanted to move his own pieces in the game. Next time, you move your pieces when it’s your turn and let your friend move his own when it’s his turn.
- Don’t say this: You always move your guest’s pieces in games, and that’s wrong. You did that today with Joey, you did it the last time we had a playdate, too, and your teacher says this is a problem at school, too. (“You always …” are two of the worst words you can say to anyone. That generalization tells the person that the bad or incorrect behavior means the person is bad or incorrect, so your child might believe it and give up on doing anything differently.)
More tips for helping your child with social skills
“Some children can’t learn social skills on their own—they need help,” says Cathi Cohen, LCSW, a certified group psychotherapist, and a leading expert in the field of social skills training in children. “Your involvement as a parent is essential to help your child learn new skills and use them in a variety of settings. You already help your child to develop social skills by modeling good social skills yourself and by creating situations in which your child can practice.”
Ms. Cohen shares tips for modeling good social skills for your children in Raise Your Child’s Social IQ—How to help when ADHD impacts people skills in CHADD’s Attention magazine.
Setting a social skills goal with your child is a good step to help your child understand the social skill he’s working to learn. It also helps him take an active role in learning the skill. Start with one that your child sees as important, such as interrupting less or learning to respond politely when called upon.
“For example, Brendan’s mom and dad may want him to stop interrupting others during conversations, but if he doesn’t agree or doesn’t feel able to meet the goal, he will not succeed,” Ms. Cohen explains. Change doesn’t have a chance of succeeding if your child doesn’t recognize that certain behaviors aren’t helpful to him, to his peers, or to the goal of having friends, she says.
If your child recognizes and wants to change those behaviors so he can have friends, he can then articulate a goal for improvement: such as, “I will count to 50 and wait for a pause in other peoples’ conversations before I speak.”
Tips you can try with your child:
- If your child doesn’t have an answer, help him work through a plan of action and role-play together what he will do when arriving at the party, or another event.
- Prompt your child to think about the feelings and reactions of his friends and peers. Ask your child to think about the needs of others and imagine what they might be feeling. Help your child understand the motivations and feelings of others by observing out loud what others’ faces and bodies are telling us. For instance, you might say, “How do you think the other boys feel if you only want to play what you want to play?”
Do you worry about your child’s social life? Does he have no close friends, is he awkward or inappropriate around peers, is he teased or bullied, or is he having trouble adapting to the peer pressures of middle school? ADHD symptoms can make socialization difficult throughout childhood and the teen years. Read more for tips on what you can do to help.