5 Social Strategies for ADHD Kids

Scientist-approved, parent-tested tips for helping children with ADHD learn how to make friends—and keep them
© MSN Healthy Living // © MSN Health
Starting Point: Fran Tesoriero realized early on that her son, Jonathan, wasn’t exactly prom king material. “It was back in sixth grade, and he was always hovering on the periphery,” she says. “For his age, he just didn’t seem very aware of what to do socially. He’d blurt things out and had an honesty about him that, unfortunately, got exploited.”

In his struggles to fit in, Jonathan is not alone. Today, in the United States alone, doctors have diagnosed some 8 percent of school-aged children—that’s about 4.4 million kids—with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Children with ADHD often are regarded as social black sheep; they miss subtle visual cues and invade personal space. They also can speak out of turn, struggle to share and lose interest during long conversations.
For Jonathan, who wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until seventh grade, his little social snags quickly added up. He was different, clearly, and as friendship circles closed before him, he seemed too different to fit in.
Tesoriero was heartbroken: “It hurt to see that he wasn’t included in certain things. I felt that he was left behind. The parents labeled him as some kind of demonic kid, and even though that wasn’t his issue, the stigma was there. It was very hard.”
But there is hope. Here, we review five scientist-approved, parent-tested tips for helping children with ADHD learn how to make friends—and, even better, keep them.
By Bethany Lye for MSN Health & Fitness
1 of 7 children on playground (© Nancy R Cohen/Getty Images)
Be a Best Friend: “Every child needs one adult who is crazy about him or her,” says Mary Fowler, author of 20 Questions to Ask if Your Child Has ADHD. “That is what keeps us going in life.”
Amori Yee Mikami, an assistant professor of psychology from the University of Virginia, seconds this recommendation. “One of the most important things you can do is to build or strengthen a positive relationship with your child,” she says. “If you do this, then your child will be more likely to respond to your feedback.” 
Children with ADHD are very aware of their differences and difficulties. Consequently, they can be hypersensitive to criticism. It’s important they feel someone is in their corner, adds Fowler.
To help foster a positive relationship with your child, Mikami advises patience and praise. “If your child is upset about a problem,” she says, “try to listen and be empathetic first for at least the minutes before you suggest what he or she could do differently next time.”
When it comes to praise, apply liberally. “Shoot for a four-to-one ratio of praise to constructive suggestions,” says Mikami, who currently is studying how parents can be friendship coaches to their young children with ADHD. “Staying positive might seem difficult when you have a child that’s done 10 things wrong and one thing half-right, but studies show the four-to-one ratio keeps adults happy in their marriages and jobs and, in my opinion, children are no different,” she says. “So, every time you have the opportunity, lavish your child in praise, and you’ll help keep their motivation up.”
2 of 7 father and son on bench (© Rubberball Productions/Getty Images)
Plan Ahead: In scheduling play dates or other social events for children with ADHD, planning is key. “Have the children talk in advance to identify what they want to do when they meet,” says Mikami. “Involve your child in this decision as much as possible.”
Once the kids decide what they want to do on their play date, it’s the parent’s responsibility to prepare for the activities beforehand (in addition to making any snacks). All of these arrangements are important, says Dr. Andrew Adesman, a pediatrician and the director of Schneider Children's Hospital’s ADHD Center on Long Island, N.Y. The plans add structure to the session and keep the kids entertained (and in the case of the snack, it provides a necessary break in the action).
Immediately before the play date, parents should sit down with their child and review appropriate and inappropriate play behavior, Mikami says: “Try to focus on just one or two corrective suggestions.” In addition, since children with ADHD can be very particular about their own possessions, the psychologist recommends working with your child to put away any toys that he or she doesn’t want their guest to touch.
As for what to actually do on the play date, “It’s always a nice idea to do some sort of hands-on activity—like a crafts project in a box,” says Adesman, who makes small paper airplanes with his own kids. “We do all sorts of funky things, like adding rubber-bands to make the planes rubber-band propelled. Or we color them and add paper clips and see whose will fly the farthest. … Anything to keep the children entertained.”
3 of 7 two young boys drawing together (© Getty Images)
Keep It Short, Supervised and Fun: The experts agree: Play dates are a great way for children of elementary school age to practice socializing. But the perfect play date should be short and structured, Adesman says.
The idea here is that if a play period lingers too long, the kids may grow bored or tired and an argument likely will erupt, he says. “How long a play date lasts depends on the children’s age, the activities planned and the interest and availability of the parent. But there is no reason why a play date can’t be an hour or more if the parent is willing to be involved.”
This issue of parental involvement is key, says Adesman. Parents should hover near the action instead of sending the kids to the basement and enjoying a break. “You want to make sure that your son or daughter isn’t going to be overly dominating or ignoring the interests of their friend,” he explains.
If your child acts up during the play date, don’t be afraid to intervene, adds Mikami. “Let’s say your child always forgets to use an inside voice. Talk it over with them before hand and say, ‘I’m going to have a secret signal, and what it means is that it’s time to lower your voice.’ ”
Then, when the friend arrives, sit back and let the kids play, and if your child’s voice grows too loud, flash the secret signal, says Mikami. “Don’t pick more than one or two consistent problems to focus on at a time, because it just gets too overwhelming,” she adds. “But, if you flash the signal and the child responds, give them a thumbs up or a really big smile right away.”
And later, when the friend finally leaves, praise your child again and extensively for a job well done, she says.
“Remember not to lose sight of the big goal,” Mikami adds. “You want the kids to have fun and deepen their friendship, and you want them to want to play together again.”
4 of 7 mother with daughter and friend playing (© Mel Yates/Getty Images)
Provide a Sporting Chance: In terms of sport teams, where many young children form some of their earliest friendships, be cautious, adds Adesman. Your child might not have what it takes to be the next Joe DiMaggio, and they may even strike out in Little League. “If a child is athletic, this can certainly be a plus in terms of becoming accepted. But the downside is some sports can be difficult from an attention standpoint,” Adesman explains.

Sports with down time, such as baseball and soccer, can be very demanding and frustrating for children with ADHD. Instead, a better fit for these children might be “individual achievement sports” like swimming, tennis or karate, says Adesman. “Martial arts is very, very structured,” he notes, “and it is achievement-oriented in terms of belts and awards—this is perfect for a child with ADHD.”
And remember: Children with ADHD tend to have an all-or-nothing mindset, according to Mary Fowler, who in addition to writing books also has raised a son with ADHD. “If they’re not No. 1, in first place and perfect, they see themselves as a failure,” she says. Consequently, it’s important to identify the activities that a child likes to do naturally, while not placing any emphasis on success. Sports may not be the answer, but no matter what the social activity, from church choir to school crafts, “They just need to be able to play for play’s sake,” says Fowler.
5 of 7 young girl doing karate (© Peter Cade/Getty Images )
Review the Rough Spots: “After the play date, be sure to check in with your child about how it went. Here, you can offer corrective feedback about what was and what wasn’t good friendship-making,” says Mikami. Still, remember that motivational ratio: four positive to one negative. Review some things that need to be changed, but try to focus most of your attention on things that went well, she says.
A Note on Medication: Both Mikami and Adesman agree that if your child is on medication during the school week, it might be a good idea to keep them on medication during their play dates. These strategies are designed to work regardless of whether your child is on medication or not, says Mikami says.
Bethany Lye is a freelance health reporter for MSN Health & Fitness, People Magazine and Health Magazine.
6 of 7 mother and son talking (© Getty Images)