By Steven A. Richfield, Psy.D.
Bright children with ADHD may succeed in the academic world but have trouble socially. Knowing the right answers, even when attention drifts in and out of focus, is not as challenging as figuring out how to appropriately direct their behavior in the presence of others.
As ADHD compels children to seek social stimulation—be it from peers, siblings, or adults—they may appear needy and annoying, and embarrass themselves and family members in the process. Doors of social opportunity close, and friendships erode; emotional pain and social exclusion result. Parents and teachers watch helplessly as the book-smart ADHD child unwittingly sabotages his or her social standing.
If this circumstance resonates with the dramas and dilemmas facing a child you know, read on for coaching tips.
Build a dialogue that blends sensitivity to their circumstances and confidence that they can improve their people skills. Observe how aware these children are of the disapproving signals sent from others when their social approach oversteps boundaries. List the ways they may overstep: talking too much, voice volume too loud, interrupting conversations, imposing self-serving topics, ignoring obvious cues to show interest in and listen to others, physical restlessness and verbal impatience with delays, etc. Reassure them that these social errors can be corrected, just as they can correct problems on assignments and tests in school.
Most ADHD children know their diagnosis but do not comprehend the social struggles related to their condition. Educating a child about this issue does not offer an excuse to escape from responsibility. In contrast, it reinforces the vital importance of learning social intelligence to ensure that ADHD does not inhibit their climb to happiness and success in life. Explain how the task of managing feeling states (frustration, eagerness, happiness, impatience, boredom, excitement, etc.) affects all kids and teens, but that ADHD makes it harder due to the trouble with impulse control. Liken impulsivity to fuel that pushes feelings into verbal and physical behaviors.
Emphasize that the first step to being more “socially smart” is building a pause button in their thinking when they feel the early signs of impulsivity starting to push them into behaviors. Help them identify these physical precursors to impulse discharge, such as finger tapping, hand drumming, fidgetiness, bodily warmth, chest heaviness, queasiness, or some other warning sign. Gently tell them what you have noticed about their impulsivity issues and offer observations from other teachers, coaches, instructors, or caretakers.
Develop a simple and practical plan for them to have at their disposal when social events threaten to trigger the costs of impulsivity. Delineate the various social groupings they come across, such as peer group, peer one-on-one, adult one-on-one, adult with peer group, family, extended family, etc. List the behaviors that others expect from them based on the implicit rules of these groupings (i.e., greater or lesser talking, elaborate answers, listening with interest, relevant questioning, etc.). Review their success after encounters and brainstorm ways to further improve.
Steven Richfield, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA. He has developed a child-friendly self-control/social skills-building program called The Parent Coach. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Products by Steven Richfield: The Parent Coach