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Encouraging Peer Relationships for Children With ADHD

written by: Dr. Anne Zachry • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 1/5/2012

Children who are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) often experience challenges in forming relationships with peers due to aggressiveness, immaturity, and an inability to stay focused during social activity. Friendships can be formed more easily with help from adults.

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    ADHD as an Obstacle to Friendship

    Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) affects approximately 8 percent of school-age children in America. Social skills for children with ADHD are often poor and this can hamper a child’s ability to make friends and socialize with peers. There are several reasons why children with ADHD struggle with forming solid peer relationships.

    The trait of impulsiveness that is inherent with ADHD can cause children to act in ways that their classmates disapprove of. Behaviors such as bossiness, and invading physical and social boundaries are often seen with these children and can be offensive to other young people. When children with ADHD are unable to remain calm and act aggressively, this is related to impulsivity and is a major factor in the rejection of ADHD children by their neurotypical peers.

    Difficulties in staying attentive and on task during social activities such as games or sports can also prevent children with ADHD from blending in with groups. Additionally, because ADHD in children increases the likelihood of social immaturity, typical peers may shun those whom they perceive as "babyish."

    Hyperactivity is another trait that can impact social interaction. Children with hyperactivity might present as restless or agitated, and they may be unable to sit still for any period of time. They also may constantly touch everything as well as those around them.

    All of these behaviors can be annoying to typical peers and impact the formation of friendships and relationships. Hyperactivity can also present more subtly, in behaviors such as fidgeting, squirming, excessive talking and interrupting others. Obviously, these behaviors can also impact the formation of social relationships.

    Many children with ADHD have difficulty understanding the moods of others and social contexts. They do not recognize what the general mood of the group might be, and they may act inappropriate and awkward compared to those around them. Acting in this way often leads to teasing and social rejection.

    Unfortunately, negative consequences can arise from an ADHD child being unsuccessful in making friends. When these children can’t properly relate to people around them, they become isolated and this can impact a child’s self-worth and self-esteem. Low self-esteem that stems from loneliness during childhood is a large contributor to problems in adult peer relationships with employers, co-workers and social acquaintances.

    Children with ADHD who lack meaningful relationships with peers are also far more likely to fail classes, quit school, and break laws. Conversely, ADHD children who manage to maintain a few good friendships will experience less stress and will be at a lower risk for developing psychological issues in the future. Because peer relationships are vital for a healthy self-image, parents and teachers should be as proactive as possible in encouraging positive social experiences for young children with ADHD.

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    Promoting Successful Peer Relationships

    Adult role models such as teachers, counselors and parents can take several important steps in helping ADHD children become more adept in social situations. If possible, they should locate a social skills group run by a qualified professional who will assist children in practicing social skills and preparing for various types of social interactions, such as conflict resolution and cooperative situations.

    Kids who have ADHD are often socially immature and relate better to children who are slightly younger, so providing opportunities for play-dates with children who are one or two grade levels behind can help with self-esteem issues and increase the potential of strengthening peer relationships within their own class.

    Less structure and supervision including playground time, free study periods and class parties are not the best times for ADHD students to socialize independently. During these “free times,” students with more social awareness strong leadership skills can be paired with an ADHD child to guide them in socializing.

    Small groups of two to three students can help an ADHD student with developing more effective social skills. These groups are most successful when planned out carefully ahead of time, and include activities that focus on interacting and cooperating. An adult practicing interacting, taking turns and socializing with an ADHD student is a great way to demonstrate appropriate behaviors and reactions prior to the group.

    If a child with ADHD is interested in exercise, consider a sports option such as a swim or tennis team that allows for individual play while still being part of a team. Exercise is very beneficial and can be a great release of excess energy while working on social skills for children with ADHD. Talk with the coach prior to signing up the child to make sure that he willing work with you regarding the child’s individual needs.

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    Adults should always establish open communication with ADHD children so that they can provide assistance and encouragement when issues with peers occur. Parents can also do their part by joining in with community activities and befriending other classroom parents for support and the arrangement of family outings. All of these strategies are important as childhood friendship and peer acceptance is extremely important to a child’s future.

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