ADHD and Social Interactions

by Glenn Hefley

Recently my son and I were waiting for a movie to start, and we decided that instead of listening to the half hour of advertising in the theater, we should take a walk around the mall. Across the way from the theater there is a video game store, and my son went over to check on a game he is interested in. There was a very long line of other teenagers and preteens stretching out of the store and down the walkway. My son walked up to one of the kids in line and asked, “Is this the line to the checkout?”

“No,” the other kid replies, “This is the line for the new X-Boxes”.

My son looked at him with a confused expression then took in the size of the line. These kids had obviously been there for a few hours waiting for the store to open and the shipment to be unpacked. He looked at the kid again and asked, “You actually bought an X-Box?”

If I were asked to choose one area to focus on while raising my ADHD child from a list that included homework skills, time management, sleep habits, hygiene, and social interactions, social interactions would win hands down every time. Thankfully, we as parents don’t have to choose just one area, but in my mind social interaction is the area in need of more attention yet often least looked at by most parents of kids with ADHD. It is not really “our fault” – we are human too – and our child’s social interactions for the most part happen some place else, out of our view, whereas his room-cleaning skills are starring us in the face. If we could see the struggle these kids have with social interactions we would react as fast as … well, as fast as parents looking after their young.

ADHD children have a very difficult time with simple social interactions. They don’t read facial expressions or body language very well. Their comments are impulsive, they interrupt others continuously, and struggle to fit in with peers. At times they talk too much, or not at all.

Girls tend to be bossy and domineering or inattentive and shy because they have trouble keeping pace with the verbal give-and-take typical of conversations with other girls. Thus, since they can’t keep up, and don’t understand, they seek to either control the verbal flow or not to be noticed.

Boys tend to be over-bearing or stand-offish. ‘Glaring’ is a term I heard once, and it fits my son. They are very intense people who tend to be more interested in subjects and facts than the people around them. In addition, boys tend to make friends with people older or younger than themselves. Thus placing themselves in relationships where their role is clearly defined.

There have been many studies in this area, confirming these social issues are typical of ADHD children. In 1998, Whalen & Henker reported that children with significant ADHD “… tend to have difficulty responding appropriately to others in social situations due to maladaptive response patterns, style of approach, and social information processing.”

“…they tend to be aggressive, domineering, impulsive, immature, overly talkative, and too intense.” (Barkley, 1996, 1997; Green et al., 1996; Landau & Moore, 1991; Merrell & Wolfe, 1998)

“…have difficulty ‘shifting gears,’ but they usually seem to have knowledge of what constitutes socially appropriate behavior. This finding has caused the conclusion that their social deficits are in performance rather than acquisition of behavior.” (Saunders & Chambers, 1996; Whalen, Henker, & Granger, 1990; Wheeler & Carlson, 1994)

“… One result of poor social skills, including aggression, inattentiveness, and hyperactivity, is that these characteristics lead to rejection by peers.” (Coie, Dodge, & Coppotelli, 1982; Henker & Whalen, 1999; Hinshaw, 1994; Hinshaw & Melnick, 1995; Sandberg, 1996)

The list goes on, and there is certainly no lack of information in this area. So what can we do about it?

There is a game I ran across many years ago called “Feeling Charades”. It isn’t a formal game from any company, or at least I don’t believe it is. What you do is make up a bunch of cards with different “feelings” written on them such as happy, sad, angry, distracted, eager, frustrated, frazzled, glad, hassled, and attentive. Place the cards in a hat or box then pick a card and try to act out the emotion. It is great for learning body language and facial expression as well as introducing your child to the range of human emotions. If you are interested in this game, I’ve made a PDF document for you, which will print out cards to get you started.

‘People watching’ is a fantastic way to spend some time with your child and learn facial and body language. While sitting in a mall or park while we eat lunch, my son and I will take turns in ‘story telling’ about the people we see. The way we play this game is: I will pick a person or group of people walking by and my son will make up a quick story about the person and what they are feeling. Then he chooses a person and I tell the tale. The tales are short and fast. We focus mainly on the emotions we believe the person is feeling and why they are feeling them.

This same idea can be done with images from a magazine or cards with pictures of people on them. It is important to take your turn also. There is no right or wrong in the game, but your child will pick up from your “tellings” and will learn from you as well as from his own creative mind.

I have no idea who originally came up with the “Faces” poster, but bless him (probably a she) whoever she is. Just putting the poster on our refrigerator, with no instructions, got results. I’ve also created a PDF document of that poster for you to print if you wish. An activity we do with the poster these days is to go through magazines and try to find photos of people (it is odd how fast our children can see emotions in dogs, cats, birds, and cartoons, and not in humans) and match the emotion-poster faces to our cut outs. We play this one as a race (who can find the most emotions in fifteen minutes), with some type of prize for the game such as a treat. The winner gets two while every one else gets one.

I have found that ripping the page from the magazine and not using scissors at all is the best way to do this one. My son came up with a “post-it” note idea, which also works very well. You number each of the faces, and then number the sheets on a post-it note pad. Going through the magazines, you find an emotion you haven’t marked yet; you grab the post-it with the number, and slap it on the page. Afterwards, you go through your stack of magazines and show your marked pages.

My son’s idea keeps the need for new magazines down. My idea is more fun, but perhaps that’s because I like ripping up magazines.