Information about How to Improve Social Skills in Children with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

For kids with ADHD, social skills may take a while to develop—or, sometimes even with time, they may not develop to the level of a child without ADHD. This can be challenging for a parent, who not only must help a child navigate through situations where social skills are an asset or even a necessity, but also wants to see his or her child flourish with peers just like any other.

When it comes to situations where a lack of honed social skills can create difficulty, parents may find it most helpful to lean on prevention strategies instead of simply reacting. This can help an ADHD child develop the social skills many often lack. Specific strategies—helpful for all kids, but perhaps especially helpful for those with ADHD—can help you support your child in the moment, and at the same time help him learn from the experience and shape the future.

Seize The Opportunity To Teach Kids with ADHD Social Skills

Dr. G.L. Flick, Ph.D., author of Power Parenting for Children with ADD/ADHD, divided the challenging social skills for children with ADHD into five categories:

  • listening
  • following instructions
  • sharing
  • working/playing cooperatively
  • social graces

Without these social skills, a child may experience difficulty with peers in school, and even later with relationships and coworkers. Success in these areas can help pave the road for easier experiences moving forward.

Parents of a child with ADHD may feel hurt and helpless. A child with ADHD is already struggling with his own challenges, and branching out socially may cause him to encounter expectations, situations and "norms" that become hard to navigate. No parent wants to see a child struggle. Remember that the challenge of helping your child develop social skills for the variety of situations he will find himself in is also an opportunity, and the way in which you teach him can help him grow his self-esteem.

Strategies for Parents of a Child with ADHD

Here are Flick's parent strategies for common situations in which kids with ADHD may be lacking social skills:
When a Child Doesn’t Seem to Listen
Children with ADHD may struggle with listening for a variety of reasons depending on their symptoms. Inattention and/r hyperactivity interfere with the ability to hear and focus on what is being communicated. An exercise in developing better listening skills may help. Flick recommends reading your child a short story then asking her to retell the story in her own words. This exercise should not set the child up to fail and should be at their reading and interpretation level. Start small with stories no longer than several minutes so that the child can be empowered by their efforts and successes rather than frustrated and discouraged. It is important to check in with the child to make sure that they are ready and aware before beginning the story.

The Need to Follow Instructions, Keep Social Graces
Following instructions (such as not touching things in the store) or maintaining social graces (such as not raising one’s voice in church) are often related to listening skills, so these challenges are not truly addressed in isolation. Improvement of one skill will often lead to improvement of others.

A parent should approach this with patience and optimism. A child with ADHD who struggles with directions will need more than one reminder or request to follow them. Though the ultimate goal is to reduce requests, parents should start off knowing that a few may be necessary.

When a child fails to complete the requested task or meet an expectation, provide feedback instead of criticism in order to show the child the desired behaviors and outcomes. For example, "I'd like everyone to be able to hear the priest, so I would like you to keep your voice down while we are in church."

When a child successfully completes what was requested, he should be rewarded and receive verbal praise that reflects on how he was successful so that he feels motivated to replicate the success going forward. After several times in a situation where expectations are outlined, missteps are addressed and successes are praised, a child should make progress.

When Kids Won't Share
Sharing is a challenge for all children until they understand the benefits and how to share. Carole Jacobs and Isadore Wendel, authors of The Everything Parent's Guide to ADHD in Children, say that because of the challenges that children with ADHD experience, they often have low self-esteem. If they are constantly on the defensive, they may fear that if they give an inch, they will end up having everything taken from them. This fear is present in most children when they learn to share, and that is why practice is crucial so that they can discover how sharing produces good feelings for them.

Practice sharing at home with your child. Share a sandwich of yours with her. Ask her to do the same with you. Be vocal about how this makes you feel, and show her how it pleases you to see her enjoy the benefits of your generosity.

When Cooperation Seems Unattainable
Working and playing cooperatively poses many of the same challenges as sharing for children with ADHD. This category includes behaviors such as when children talk out of turn, dominate conversations or boss others around.

Verbal recognition of the desired behavior reinforces the need and acknowledges a positive interaction. Parents can model how to take turns playing or helping out in a variety of activities so that children know how they should respond in given situations. Young children observe their parents and learn a lot about the world this way.

Children with ADHD might need a little extra time and support to remember and practice social skills. In the moment, when a child is not using his or her social skills in a conversation, the parent can remind them about what they practiced and talked about. This is an approach that will not humiliate the child and will help them to apply the social skills that they are developing.

A Note About Temper Tantrums
Temper tantrums are an all-too familiar outcome of frustration for many kids with ADHD. When a child is having a temper tantrum the parent should try to discover what triggered the explosive behavior because it is often indicative of anger or frustration due to the inability to cope. In the moment, this may seem trivial because the goal is to stop the behavior. But this understanding may reduce or eliminate future outbursts.

For example, an unexpected or over-stimulating environment may overwhelm the child. They may need a break or time and help to adjust to the unanticipated situation. It may be helpful to keep a log of when the tantrums occur, describing fully the time of day, what was occurring when the tantrum started, what had preceded the event and possible causes. This strategy often reveals a pattern that leads to temper tantrums.

Just as a baby is trying to communicate something by crying, a child with ADHD is communicating with a temper tantrum. It is hard not to become aggravated, especially when the pattern is ongoing and makes it seem as though the child is just being defiant. If the underlying causes are discovered, both the child and parent can identify better ways to cope.

It is important to remember that ADHD symptoms can impair the healthy development of social skills and that it is not the child’s fault. When acknowledging and correcting problems, be mindful to opt for techniques that do not involve blame and shame. Reflection and processing of social interactions should be done in private with the child in a teaching rather than preaching manner. This will communicate to the child that the goal is to help and facilitate improvement rather than to punish and express disappointment.

Written by:
Laura Middleton, M.S.W.

Alexander-Roberts, C. (1994). The ADHD Parenting Handbook: Practical Advice for Parents from Parents. Texas: Taylor Publishing Company.

Flick, G. L. (1996). Power Parenting for Children with ADD/ADHD: A Practical Parent’s Guide for Managing Difficult Behaviors. New York: The Center For Applied Research In Education.

Jacobs, C. & Isadore, W. (2010). The Everything Parent’s Guide to ADHD in Children: A Reassuring Guide to Getting the Right Diagnosis, Understanding Treatments, and Helping Your Child Focus. Massachusetts: Adams Media.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at HealthCommunities.com

Published: 21 Jul 2011

Last Modified: 27 Aug 2015