10 Ways to Navigate Social Challenges with a High School Teen with ADHD

teenage girls in an article by Caroline Maguire on helping kids with ADHD with high school friendships

High school is a fast-paced, shifting social landscape where old friends can drift away and social status takes on greater importance. This is also the time when many kids shift their primary friendship focus away from their family and spend most of their hours with their core group of friends. 

For kids who have trouble making friends or who end up in messy friendship situations, talking about these challenges with your kid can be a minefield. ADHD isn’t necessarily the reason why they have friendship challenges, but kids with ADHD have different ways of being in the world.

I have helped lots of parents learn how to make subtle changes in their communication style that reduce the stress of helping your ADHD kid with making friends. The truth is, you need a way to talk to your kid even when they’re in their teenage years.

Here are 10 ways to help you navigate social challenge with your ADHD child

  1. Don’t assume you understand the reasons why your teen is struggling – By withholding judgment, you open the lines of communication and create an atmosphere of safety and trust, which also allows them to evaluate their own thoughts and values. By starting each conversation with the mindset of being curious rather than the authority, you create the opportunity for your child to teach you about their experience.This powerful shift will help your child feel supported and trusted by you in immeasurable ways. You’re literally saying to your child, “I trust that you know yourself better than anyone ever could.”
  2. Look at their perspective – Many teens feel misunderstood by the world around them. This can be particularly true for kids with ADHD and other neurodiverse mindsets. By stepping into your teen’s shoes and hearing their perspective, you can get better insight into what matters to them and why. Then, when your teen harps on a topic, hounds you, or vehemently objects against something, you have a better understanding of their perspective.
  3. Keep conversations short – Conversations don’t need to be interrogations or monologues. And it’s important to not just talk about things that are negative. By engaging in lighter conversations, your teen will engage more easily and more often.
  4. Ask, don’t tell – When you’re unsure about what is causing your teen’s reaction, ask them questions like, “Why is that so important to you?” or “Why do you feel this way?” so you hear their perspective firsthand.  The cardinal rule is to not assume, but to ask instead.
  5. Encourage your teen to take a step – If making new friends or deepening relationships is the goal, the easiest path is a shared interest or activity. Brainstorm with your teen what they are interested in and where they can meet others. Support their interests with encouragement and coordinate the logistics with them. That makes participation simpler for everyone.
  6. Coach social rules – Often kids with ADHD struggle to understand “social norms” and how to participate with friends or in groups without stress.  One easy way to coach your teen is with “Social Spy.” This activity teaches kids how to discreetly observe an individual, group or situation BEFORE getting involved. As a Social Spy, kids observe the mood, tone, energy, of the group/friends so they have a sense of how others interact and what social behaviors are common. You can read more about Social Spy here.
  7. Coach reading the whole person – Help your teen to understand that we’re  complex and can act differently in different situations. Using the Social Spy model, have your teen notice how someone acts, what they’re interested in and how they communicate non-verbally. As an observer of people, what do they see?  Is the person a people pleaser? Are they introverted or do they love the spotlight? What do they say and don’t say in different settings? This practice of making inferences can lead to conversations with your teen about how to  adapt their communication style to connect with someone as a friend on a deeper, more connected level.
  8. Coach conflict resolution – Conflict is a regular part of life and it certainly happens in friendship. It’s important that your teen has some skills to navigate when things don’t go as smoothly as we would like. It’s easy to let emotions take over when conflicts come up. Teaching kids to recognize how to cool off, take a time out, and how to know what’s going on internally so they don’t misread things like “being hungry” with frustration all support reducing emotions before conflicts grow from smoldering embers to outright fires.
  9. Demonstrate perspective taking – Your teen’s brain typically focuses on their own perspective so it’s important to model stepping into another person’s shoes. This supports positive friendship skills around compromise, compassion and empathy.
  10. Help them see what they offer – Encourage your teen to be in touch with their positive attributes and strengths. Which traits should they express more? What makes your teenager special and unique in the world? By acknowledging their strengths,  they will feel greater confidence which goes a long way to helping them find their place in the high school social scene.

Remember that the goal with high school friends isn’t to be the most popular kid or to have dozens of friends. Research supports that most people have 3-5 great friends in their lifetime and that your closest friends contribute greatly to your self-esteem. ADHD may have impacted your teen’s ability to make friends in the past, but high school is an exceptional opportunity to reinvent yourself.

Help your teen overcome their social challenges around making (and keeping) friends with these 10 skills. If I can help you further, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

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