Why friendships are important for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Friendships are important for all children, including children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Friendships help all children:
- feel that they fit in with and belong to their peer group
- feel good about themselves
- learn about getting along with others and sorting out social problems.
For children with ADHD, good friendships can help them do better at school. Good friendships in childhood might also mean fewer social and emotional difficulties for them later in life.
ADHD and children’s friendships
To build friendships, children usually need to be able to do things like:
- take turns in conversations or play activities
- follow rules
- work as team
- notice other people’s feelings
- remember things that are important to other people.
All children sometimes need support to develop these friendship skills.
Children with ADHD often need to work hard at paying attention and controlling impulses and hyperactivity. Processing a lot of information at once – like words, tone of voice, facial expressions and body language – can be a challenge too. This means children with ADHD might need extra support with particular areas of friendship like:
- listening to other people and concentrating on what they’re saying
- controlling the impulse to speak while other people are speaking
- noticing body language and emotions as cues to other people’s feelings.
Children with ADHD might socialise, interact and do other things differently from neurotypical children. This is part of being neurodiverse. You can encourage other children and adults to embrace your child’s neurodiversity.
Helping children and pre-teens with ADHD develop play and social skills for friendship
Children with ADHD might need extra support to develop social skills in ways that work for them. Here are some important social skills and ideas for helping your child develop them.
Play can be one of the best ways to help children learn to understand and manage their own and other people’s emotions. Play ideas to help with children’s emotions include drawing, reading, pretend play and messy play.
You can help your child learn about following rules by breaking activities into small steps. For example, ‘In this game, rule 1 is …, rule 2 is…, rule 3 is …’. Your child might learn best by reading rules, or they might prefer to look at pictures. And if your child can tell you the rules, you’ll know they understand.
If you play turn-taking games together, it can give your child the chance to learn and practise this skill. You could try simple games like ‘I spy’ and build up to card or board games. Praise your child when they take turns. But stop when you see signs that your child is losing interest or getting overstimulated. You can try again another time.
You might need to help your child understand conversations. For example, ‘Sarah, a conversation is when both people get to speak about something. I talk for a bit and then I stop. That means it’s your time to talk’. You could try doing this in a structured way at family mealtimes, or when your child gets home from school and so on.
It’s important for your child to know what to do if there’s a problem with another child, like an argument over whose turn it is. For example, the solution might be walking away if they’re feeling frustrated and angry or talking to a teacher or parent. You and your child could role-play situations like these.
If your child is finding it hard to play with other children, watch your child to work out why. For example, does the game have too many rules and expectations? Or does your child find it hard when games are slow paced and there’s a lot of waiting? If so, simpler games or more active games could be a good choice.
Finding friends for children and pre-teens with ADHD
If your child has ADHD, they can make and have good friends, but they might need some help to get started. Here are a few things you can try:
- Identify your child’s strengths and interests. For example, what does your child like? What is your child good at?
- Help your child to meet children who enjoy similar things. This could be through a special interest club at school or an after-school activity.
- Talk to your child’s teacher. They might be able to tell you who your child plays with, or you could watch to see which children your child goes to in the school playground.
Talking about friendship with your child can be a good idea. You could talk about why people make friends, how to make friends, and how we should treat friends and be treated by friends. Books, TV shows and movies can be great conversation starters.
Playdates for children and pre-teens with ADHD
If your child has made friends at school or mentioned children they’d like to be friends with, playdates outside school can help these friendships grow.
Here are some ideas to help playdates go well for your child with ADHD:
- Start by inviting one child over for a playdate at your house. A familiar environment can help your child feel comfortable and reduce the likelihood your child will get overstimulated.
- Talk with your child before the playdate. For example, ‘I know you’re excited but remember the rules, listen to Lucas, talk slowly, and take turns’.
- Choose a simple, structured activity. If the activity is a game, choose one that your child knows, so they don’t have to learn new information or rules while the friend is there.
- Have some quiet and calming activities like Lego or puzzles ready in case your child starts to get overstimulated.
- Remind your child to wait their turn in activities and conversations. To avoid intruding on the play, you could use a code word that you’ve agreed on with your child beforehand. For example, ‘banana’ could mean ‘It’s the other person’s turn’. Or you could use a sign, like a wink.
- Help your child’s friend understand and accept your child’s needs. For example, you could say that your child finds short playdates easier or needs to play running around games to let off steam.
- Keep playdates short to start with.
If your child is going to a playdate at another child’s house, it can help to let the other parent know your child has ADHD. You can let them know how they can adjust things to meet your child’s needs. For example, you could say that after a fast and exciting activity, your child needs to take a break, have a snack or do a calmer activity.