A Pain to Witness
Often, it pains us to see our kids walk alone on the playground, or in the hallways at school. Sure, they have you, and you are the single most important factor in the successful management of their ADHD. But we know that friendships are critical to their social and cognitive development – and their happiness.
Why is it hard for our children to make friends, and how can we support them?
Girls Will Be Boys
In an article on the CHADD website, Dr. Janet Z Giler writes: "[G]irls with ADHD have more social problems than boys with ADHD because the ADHD personality traits are less acceptable in female social interactions.”
In other words, when boys exhibit impulsivity, hyperactivity, bossiness, aggression, and problems regulating emotions, it's “boys will be boys.” When girls display the same type of ADHD behaviors, it's a whole different story. Girls with ADHD can feel outcast and isolated from other girls because they don't conform to societal constructs.
For example, girls who struggle with issues of processing speed, pragmatics of language, social skills, sequencing, prioritizing thoughts, or regulating emotion or language have a hard time keeping up with same-age typical girls. They don't pick up the social cues. They just don't “get” the way that girls communicate.
And then there's the physicality of ADHD. It's expected that boys will run around like maniacs at recess, roughhouse, and play physical games. But girls tend to talk or engage in play that centers on relationships. That's a tough choice to make for ADHD girls, who aren't keeping up with talk of fashion, crushes and gossip. Often they would much rather play actively with the boys.
I saw this with my two older kids when they were younger, and I see it regularly with many of my clients, now. Elementary-aged girls with ADHD may gravitate to boys because they are much easier to hang with. (Or sometimes, those assigned female at birth do not yet realize that they are trans and may end up identifying as non-binary or even as male). Come fourth grade or so, my kids (they/them and she/they) weren't ready to stop playing on the playground. Developmentally, they were 10 going on 7. They still needed that physical outlet, and it was no fun to try to keep track with what the girls were doing. They couldn't fulfill the expectations of the girls. But boys? They could handle them!
What About The Boys?
Sometimes we see the same thing happening for ADHD boys, but in the reverse. They may be more emotional, more creative, or more sensitive. They don't respond well to other boys who'll judge them if they cry. Or they may not be as physically-oriented. I hear from my clients all the time that “my son is not very athletic.” Girls tend to welcome these boys.
Kids with ADHD often gravitate, particularly in elementary school, to the opposite sex because that's where they feel accepted and safe. They also tend to enjoy playing with kids who are much younger. Remember, they're three to five years behind their same-age peers in some aspects of their development. With those kinds of delays, it's hard to find a place where they connect and belong.
Walking Beside Your Child
Watching your kids struggle with making friendships and connections is incredibly hard to witness. But often we suffer more than our kids do, and their “worries” come from our concerns that they don't have a “best friend” or a “good group of friends.”
But there is good news. Their brains develop along a normal pattern, albeit at a delayed rate. As they grow, they start to catch up in certain areas, and some of this stuff starts clicking. When they're ready to make friends – because they want it for themselves, not because we want it for them – they'll begin to learn how, or ask for help.
High school – yes, that bullpen of teen misery and angst – is actually a godsend for many ADHD preteens and teenagers. They have greater opportunity to pursue their own interests and meet peers who share them. Often, they finally begin to find their peeps.
You can, too. If you're concerned about your child's social development, try these strategies:
- Social skills classes. Classes for kids can help them learn to manage impulsivity, improve self-regulation, manage emotions, and pick up on social cues.
- Parent coaching. Coaching for parents can teach strategies and tools to parent more effectively, and help you figure out when your child's situation needs your intervention, and when to stay out of it and let things develop naturally.
- Social stories. Originally created to help kids deal with anxiety about upcoming situations, social stories can also be used to help kids prepare to meet friends, learn how to handle common conflicts, or any number of other important lessons.
- Realize it doesn't come naturally – and don't be afraid. Making friends is a skill that our kids need to learn. It may not come naturally. But they can develop it. A lot of parents are terrified their kids are never going to have friends and that they'll be alone for the rest of their lives. That usually doesn't happen! But when kids feel your fear – and they do – it makes the obstacle that much harder to surmount.
Your kids can make friends. They can form strong relationships that help them grow and make them happy. It will happen over time – at their pace, and according to their development. They just need support, patience, and guidance until they get there.