Coaching your ADHD child on social skills is more complicated than just telling them when they’ve done something wrong.
Believe me, I know how hard it is not to lose your sh-t when your child behaves inappropriately in a social situation.
I’ve spent many hours sitting on the sidelines of Jujitsu sweating from the armpits while watching him stand off to the side in his blue gi, with his fists balled, glaring at the instructor like he just took away his Nintendo switch because he was asked to move his foot a little to the right.
My son doesn’t respond well when he is corrected no matter how nice the correction is.
But social skills can be taught in less intense moments,too.
Edawg and I have been reading as a form of social skills training.
Reading teaches us how to get into someone else’s mind and heart. It reveals to us how the world works and ways to solve problems.
Reading makes us think about people, places, and things we wouldn’t otherwise.
As much as I love our daily Harry Potter reading habit, I still don’t really know how to teach some of the social skills my son needs. Most of the things I learned from our in-home therapist are still working, but he will turn ten in a couple months and I need a refresher.
Enter Caroline Maguire and her incredible knowledge base.
I asked Caroline to come on the podcast, and I learned so much about coaching children on social skills I decided to write this article.
Coaching your ADHD child on social skills
Many neurodivergent kids and adults struggle with social skills. But even parents who have ADHD don’t understand that social skills are linked to executive functions.
Our executive functions are like the conductor of our brain, allowing us to pause and think about our actions and make decisions about how we should respond in any given situation. I’ve written about how EF deficits show up in our lives in great detail.
ADHD has long been referred to as a neurodevelopmental disorder. We now have research to indicate that the executive function of children with ADHD lags behind neurotpical children by 1-3 years. Source
This explains why children like my son act out when the demands of a third-grade classroom become too much. His pre-frontal cortex is simply not developing as quickly as we might like.
In her book, Why Will No One Play With Me, Caroline Maguire writes, weak executive functions translate into weak social skills. (21) (Affiliate link. See my full disclosure.)
ADHD children often grapple with things such as:
– recognizing that other people have different emotions than we do, and reacting accordingly
– reading the emotional states of others
– discerning the point of what someone is saying
– interpreting tone and intention along with the words
– understanding that your actions provoke reactions in others
– recognizing unspoken rules and expectations in certain environments
– responding appropriately
If you recognize some of these social struggles in yourself, you are not alone. You have options for teaching your child how to think about the social world.
The first thing you want to do is start talking about how you AND your child think.
Obviously, social interaction is important to development, but there are other skills involved as well that you might be missing.
Children often need to be taught how to notice and think about their own thoughts. Another word for this is metacognition.
Metacognition helps us to be more socially aware and more self-aware. It’s sort of a window into how we see the world.
You can begin the conversation about how your child thinks without the help of a therapist. In fact, practicing as a family is ideal.
Eat meals together, talk about what you are thinking and your child is thinking at every opportunity. When something arises in conversation, as questions about it.
When E and I read together, I ask E, “what do you think he/she was thinking there?” Or, “Why would someone do/say that?”
You can model metacognition every time there is an argument at home, or an incident at camp. The more you do it the more it becomes part of your child’s social learning and the more comfortable you both get with discussing how you think.
Observing people in groups
It wasn’t easy for Harry Potter to go to Hogwarts for the first time. He was totally alone and had never met any kids his age with his special abilities. He had to observe the behavior of those around him and figure out the expectations.
It’s the same for your child when they attend a birthday party or go to school. He must learn to observe how the other children are interacting in order to make choices about how he will engage.
Observing others is the best way to avoid conflicts and misunderstandings.
Help your child become a people watcher.
Observe the behavior of other kids on the playground, or strangers in Target. Watch the body language and point out the volume of the voices when you watch movies.
While in, “social spy” mode, you can also introduce the idea of unspoken rules.
Most of us know without being told that we shouldn’t shout in the library. But some social rules aren’t as obvious.
Not everyone knows intuitively when he should sit/stand, or how much to share with a new friend. Sometimes we have to give concrete examples and role play.
The impression you create
Harry potter had no clue that he was famous in the wizarding world. He didn’t know that people held strong opinions about him without ever having met him.
Everything you do leaves an impression on the other humans around you. As an adult you are more adept at managing the impressions you leave.
Children with ADHD might not realize that some of their behaviors leave a negative impression on others. Again, poorly developed executive function leads to low self-awareness.
We need to teach our children that how they behave toward other people, will affect how those people think about them and treat them down the road.
Maguire calls these behaviors, “friendly, agreeable behaviors,” and “disagreeable behaviors.” (137)
Disagreeable behaviors I’ve observed in my own child include:
A scowl, or sad dejected face
Sharp tone of voice
Lack of eye contact
Crossed arms/closed body language
Talking over/interrupting others
I’ve written before about giving him a redo, and that often works.
But sometimes I have to explicitly tell him that the face he is making is negative, or his tone is not nice. We’ve had many conversations about how that makes people feel, and how they might treat him as a result.
On the other hand, more agreeable behaviors can be encouraged and modeled.
Being patient with others
Practicing flexibility and cooperation
Letting go of hurt feelings
Smiling and acting friendly
Responding appropriately to other’s questions
Explain that you don’t have to agree with everyone. You don’t even have to like everyone. But you do have to be polite and respectful.
Think about how many times Harry could have behave disrespectfully toward professor Snape. Potter chose the polite pretend because he knew it was the right thing to do and it would earn him the respect of others.
Having these conversations is key. There are numerous exercises in Maguire’s book to help facilitate.
Making and keeping friends
As the mother of an Aspergers/ADHD child I worry constantly about my son making and keeping friends.
Kids can identify classmates they have things in common with and those that they don’t. Social groups form starting as early as kindergarten, and it only gets more difficult as they mature.
Coaching your children through basic friendship skills is a must. Cooperation, participation, and communication are key and can be demonstrated.
When Ron found out Harry was going to participate in the Tri-Wizard Tournament he didn’t speak to Harry for weeks. My son and I discussed what Ron might have been feeling, and what harry was feeling as well.
Walking in the shoes of others is difficult, even when they are close to you. See my post on empathy.
People misunderstand each other’s actions and words all the time.
It is very possible to feel hurt or angry at someone and still have kind feelings for them. This is what it means to be a friend and keep a friend.
Everyone in the ADHD world now acknowledges the role of emotional dysregulation in ADHD.
Emotional regulation is a problem for much of the adult population, so teaching it to our children while we are working through it ourselves is a challenge. But it’s worth pursuing.
Children understand the concept of big feelings at a young age, so start there.
You can explain that when we swamped in emotions we might feel like we want to pick a fight, or run away, or just shut down. All of these feelings are normal, but we have to learn how to handle them.
Talk about the situations that cause big emotions. Things like being hungry, bored, tired, or feeling lonely can make it hard to manage our feelings.
Next, ask about how their body feels when they are flooded with big feelings. Are they hot? Does their head hurt?
In her book, Caroline has an amazing lesson called, “Reactive Me and Thinking Me” that shows the difference between a calm state of mind, and a reactive one. There are also calming exercises that you can implement immediately. (252)
Social skills are not a given.
We all struggle with social skills. Even neurotypical people with good executive functioning can have trouble mixing with other humans.
But the great part is that social skills are something you can practice, and teach yoru children directly.
As parents, we often feel like some things should be obvious to our offspring. As if all of our experiences, learnings, and beliefs will be inherited just like our hazel eyes.
But neurodevelopment doesn’t work that way. The brain develops in it’s own time and in it’s own way for everyone.
Coaching your ADHD child on social skills is hard work, it requires commitment from the whole family.
It also requires us as parents to examine our own interpersonal skills, thinking, and behavior. None of this is easy.
“Coaching gives our children a lasting legacy because it teaches them to continually try to evolve, to be a person who works on things. After all, we are all working on something.” – Caroline Maguire
You are capable of change and growth. Lets show our children they are, too.
Wanna hang out and talk social skills? Join the Enclave.
I bring together brilliant ADHD women to manage our emotions, tell our stories, and create the kind of change that lead to calmer, more satisfying lives with ADHD.