Children with ADHD often exhibit behavior that is seen as emotional, disruptive, impulsive, or disorganized. Their interactions with others in their social environment — whether with siblings, teachers, or parents — are often filled with miscommunication and misunderstanding. Improving a child’s social abilities becomes possible when we understand the foundations and strategies that can support ADHD social skills. Here is everything you need to know about how ADHD can impact your child’s social skills.
The Link Between ADHD and Social Skills in Children
Difficulty with social skills goes hand in hand with ADHD. But what is it about ADHD in children that causes such difficulty with following social cues and norms? A study examined the association between ADHD and social problems. The researchers found that levels of social functioning decreased when ADHD symptoms increased, which was further explained by emotional dysregulation [*]. This suggests that the underlying cause of social challenges in kids with ADHD is due to difficulty regulating emotions.
ADHD can negatively affect how children interact with others, even when they have the best intentions to make friends or engage in social activities. Since children with ADHD have trouble regulating their emotions, they may also appear disinterested, miss important social cues, or find it difficult to maintain focus during conversations. This then leads to challenges in forming and maintaining relationships.
Symptoms of ADHD in Social Interactions
Some symptoms of ADHD show up in social interactions. Here are some of the most common ones that children with ADHD might experience.
- Choice paralysis
- Missing social cues
- Difficulty listening to others
- Frequently interrupting
- Being distracted by noises or other sounds
- Becoming overwhelmed and withdrawn
- Displaying aggression
- Initiating conversations at inappropriate times
- Missing bits of information
- Sharing scattered thoughts
- Being hyper-focused on a topic
- Talking rapidly or excessively
- Mental paralysis
- Goofy behavior at inappropriate times
- Entering others’ personal space
This is not an exhaustive list of all the symptoms that children with ADHD may have in social interactions, but it highlights symptoms that are most often observed resulting from this condition.
Challenges Faced By Children with ADHD in Different Social Settings
ADHD symptoms may result in challenges faced by children in different social settings, affecting their relationships with peers, families, and schools.
ADHD can make things especially difficult when interacting with peers. A study explored several aspects of peer relationships, including peer problems, quality of friendships, sociometric status, peer victimization, and peer rejection among children with ADHD. It found that children with ADHD had lower friendship quality and were likely to be victimized and rejected by peers compared to children without ADHD [*].
This is because children with ADHD who enter a social setting have difficulties sharing, taking turns, listening, and picking up on social cues. Their peers may view them as uninterested or unkind, which often leads to avoidance and further missed opportunities for practicing social skills and decreased confidence in their social abilities. Some children may even avoid social interactions altogether to avoid further rejection.
ADHD can also have negative consequences on family dynamics. Children with ADHD may chronically fail to meet obligations, do chores, keep their rooms tidy, and stay on time. As a result, parents may set limits with higher penalties and increasingly rigid limitations on the child. This, in turn, makes the child less cooperative, more defiant, and more alienated.
Parents may feel exasperated with their child’s “attitude problem,” so they become less sympathetic to excuses or explanations. Some families may even solidify the child’s role as the “problem child” so that there is a dedicated scapegoat for the family’s conflicts and problems as exacerbated by symptoms of ADHD.
Children must be present and ready to learn throughout the day to do well in their studies. This requires them to regulate their bodies, thoughts, and emotions as well as understand social cues. For students with ADHD, this can be difficult to achieve due to their hyperactive, impulsive, and inattentive tendencies. Children with ADHD may encounter challenges adapting their social behavior during interactions at school.
Furthermore, studies have found that children with ADHD do not perform as well on standardized academic tests. They may also have lower grade point averages due to increased absenteeism rates and dropping out of school. This places them at risk for educational and occupational difficulties during adulthood [*].
How to Support Social Skills Development in Children with ADHD
There are many ways that parents, caregivers, and guardians can teach and create opportunities for children to practice social interactions. Here are some examples:
Give Immediate Feedback
Providing immediate and frequent feedback regarding your child’s social behavior is one of the best ways to help them learn and adjust. Whenever your child displays positive social behavior, reward them with verbal praise to build their confidence.
Another way you can improve your child’s social interactions is through role-playing situations that your child may encounter. It can be a fun way to model and practice different perspectives, turn-taking, and navigating conflicts.
Encourage your child to reflect on their social interactions by keeping a journal. They can write about how their encounters made them feel, how others made them feel, and how they could improve future interactions.
Use Movies, Shows, and Stories
Talk about social clues, conventions, and acceptable and unacceptable behavior in films, TV series, and stories. What did the characters do well, in your child's opinion? What more could they have done? What impact did one character's actions have on the others? What was the mood of the characters? Help your child recognize the characters' similarities and differences.
Teach your child how to utilize video games and online video call platforms properly to ensure they continue engaging virtually with their classmates and developing their social skills.
Play Interactive Games
Play interactive games with family members. This develops communication, turn-taking, and perspective-taking skills. Some games you can play include Jenga, Pictionary, Uno, Scrabble, and more.
Social Skills Groups
Social skills groups can also significantly help with the challenges of ADHD. These groups help kids maintain social interaction and prevent interpersonal difficulties by focusing on problem-solving, control of emotions, and the improvement of verbal and non-verbal communication. You can search for social skills groups in your area, often provided by schools or local mental health agencies.
People learn by doing in ADHD therapy. A therapist who is qualified to help manage ADHD symptoms will often assist children in building skills by conducting activities. Such activities are designed to improve emotion, attention, and study skills that will be helpful to children as they grow. They also teach children social skills to help them get along better with other people.
The Bottom Line
Children with ADHD may have a more challenging time understanding social cues and using the right social skills. Several areas of social functioning may be affected, including listening to others, initiating conversations at appropriate times, talking excessively, and missing social cues. Such challenges influence daily interactions at home and school. Even with obstacles such as ADHD paralysis and other symptoms, parents can help their kids understand and practice social skills development at home. This can be done using aids such as ADHD worksheets and other tools at home. It is also highly advisable to see a qualified professional to help with ADHD.
- Bunford N, Evens S, Becker S, et al. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Social Skills in Youth: A Moderated Mediation Model of Emotion Dysregulation and Depression. 28 May 2019.
- Marsus N, Huey L, Saffari N, et al. Peer Relationship Difficulties among Children with Adhd: A Systematic Review. June 2022.
- Español-Martín G, Pagerols M, Prat R, et al. The impact of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and specific learning disorders on academic performance in Spanish children from a low-middle- and a high-income population. 12 April 2023.