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Help Children Improve Social Skills and Peer Relationships

Margaret V. Austin, Ph.D., edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Children with ADHD are frequently rejected by peers. Hyperactive, impulsive, or aggressive behaviors cause other children to keep their distance. Peer rejection is very painful to children, even if they do not know how to express this.

kids playing Understandably, caregivers are often reluctant to interfere with children's peer relationships. However, active adult involvement helps children with ADHD to enjoy rewarding peer relationships. Caregivers should immediately praise (reward) their child's efforts to use appropriate social skills. Likewise, caregivers should provide immediate negative consequences for aggressive behaviors.

Caregivers can help children improve social skills. Caregivers can learn these helpful techniques from a parent-training class, or other professional resource. Early attention to social skills training is advisable. Here are some examples of techniques that caregivers can use to facilitate the development of positive peer relationships:

  • Identify, discuss, and post socializing guidelines. Review the reasons for the guideline. Rehearse examples of effective social interaction. Frame guidelines in terms of what to do versus what not to do. For example: Look at someone when they are talking. After a person stops speaking, count to three before you start talking.
  • Use stories, movies, cartoons, and video games as springboards for discussions about social interactions between the characters. What did they do well? What should they have done differently? How did one character's behavior affect the others?
  • Encourage the child to keep a journal about social interactions. Ask them to describe their feelings about these events and interactions. Just as in the example above, ask them to identify what they did well. What should they have done differently? How did their behavior affect the other person? This exercise improves written expression; improves sensitivity to others; and, develops a greater awareness of emotions.
  • Actively monitor children's interactions with others. This can help prevent negative peer interactions and avoid painful misunderstandings. For example, a child may conclude a friend no longer likes them simply because their friend did not want to play outside one day. Caregivers can turn this into a game of possibilities: Why else might Larry not want to play outside? Maybe he has a hole in his pants. Maybe he can't find his jacket. Maybe he has to give his baby sister a bath, etc. etc.
  • Help children to appreciate the similarities and differences between people. Turn this into a game as well. Ask the child to find as many similarities as they can in one minute. Then ask them to find as many unique qualities as they can in one minute.
  • Titrate time spent in social interactions according to age and ability. Gradually increase the time as the child becomes more socially skilled.
  • Help children learn how to help others. Being helpful is a quick path toward friendly social interactions. Monitor these interactions because being bossy isn't the same as being helpful.
  • Encourage participation in age-appropriate community or church projects. These provide meaningful ways to engage with others, toward a common purpose.