Help Your Kid Reframe Their Love-Hate Relationship with Being Social

Picture of mom and teen in an article on love-hate relationship with being social and making friends.

Alex*, a high school junior, has given up on making friends. “School is stressful enough”, she says. Instead of participating in after-school clubs and activities, she spends the evenings with her headphones on, listening to music while gaming or doing homework. 

This love-hate relationship with being social started early. In the past, when she’d make a  connection with another student, someone she met in class or at a mutual activity, it would start off smoothly. But, when classes and schedules changed, she often found it hard to keep up with her peers. For Alex and lots of kids like her, developing friendships beyond the “friendly acquaintance” stage is slow to materialize. 

It’s been months since she’s spent any social time with classmates or peers and with her past disappointments, Alex often prefers being alone to trying it all again. In truth, her parents are worried. Senior year is coming up fast, and everyone is starting to wonder if she will get to experience any of the typical social milestones of adolescence?  

Why Do Some Kids Seem to Hate Being Social?

For kids, particularly kids with developmental diagnoses such as ADHD, autism, or learning disabilities, the social world can be a minefield of unspoken rules and shattered expectations. Kids who struggle to make friends often have a myriad of stories in their heads that contribute to not wanting to “try again”.

Kids with developmental and social challenges often deal with many mixed messages that dampen their motivation to meet new friends. 

Character strengths like “caring deeply”, using humor to connect, or being sensitive can work for them in some friendship arenas, but backfire greatly in others. 

The kid who reacts strongly when defending a buddy may receive praise from their peers, but in another instance when they react strongly for a different reason, they receive criticism or rejection. 

The kid who is deeply sensitive and shows emotions that others are afraid to may be supported strongly when something sad happens, but that same level of sensitivity may be viewed as an annoyance when it’s applied to a different scenario. 

Or the kid who needs time to recharge after a big event is supported by their classmates for taking time off social media, but when that same kid needs time to reset their battery after a normal day they may be rejected when socially they can’t keep up with their peers.

The mixed message many kids receive is that their strengths can become liabilities in different social situations. This makes it hard for some kids to stay motivated or even willing to try to make new friends. 

And for most of us, it’s true that the process of creating, maintaining, and developing a social circle is exhausting. So while our kids are often smart, funny, and original, many of them simply drift along, disconnected and isolated, even sometimes by choice.

As a parent, it’s hard to know how to support your child when they seem to want connection, but they lack the motivation to put themselves out there. The balance gets even trickier as kids get older. Still, there are strategies you can use to help your child or teenager adjust their mindset, open themselves up to opportunities, and ultimately reframe their love hate relationship with being social. 

Here Are My Top 5 Ways to Help Your Kid Reframe Their Love-Hate Relationship with Being Social & Making Friends

#1 Get Curious! Ask Questions First

Often, the first step of communicating more effectively with your kids is to stop telling them what you think they “should” do. Instead, start asking more questions. When you make assumptions about why your child is avoiding social situations, you risk misidentifying the problem. Without a clear idea of what is preventing your kid(s) from connecting, your well-intentioned advice may miss the mark.

Start by asking open-ended questions to encourage your child to share details. Open-ended questions often start with the “5 Ws:” Who, What, Where, When, and Why. “What happens in the cafeteria?” “Who do you interact with?” “Where do you choose to sit? Why?”’

By getting curious, asking questions, and holding space for your kid to share, you can help them clarify why they feel the way they do. 

#2 Validate Their Emotions, but Challenge the Stories

As a parent of a child with ADHD, you very likely encounter attitudes of defeat. Children respond to ideas and encouragement with phrases like, “Why bother, I already tried that and it didn’t work.” or, “Kids don’t like me. What’s the point?”

Statements like this can be broken down into two elements: an emotion, and a story the child is telling themselves. 

Take the statement:  “Why bother, I already tried that and it didn’t work.” 

The first part of the statement “Why bother…” is led by your child’s past experience and defeat. The emotions behind it can range from sadness, to regret, to fear. All of which are heavy on your kid’s mind and heart.

The second part of the statement “… I already tried that and it didn’t work.” is a story they are telling themselves about the past experience. It’s very likely that there are elements of this story that are true, but it’s also possible that there are parts of the story that are incomplete. To know what is really going on, you have to explore the story behind their feelings. 

Asking questions helps you get closer to what really went wrong and why you’re running into resistance. Ask questions such as:

  • What happened to make you feel this way?
  • Would you tell me more specifically what caused you to feel like you do?
  • What facts are out there that support the story in your mind?
  • What else could it be?

By listening and then validating your child’s emotions while also gently pushing back on the story in their mind that is causing them to feel stuck, you encourage your kid to think about their past experiences in a new way.

#3 Celebrate Their Strengths

Sometimes, kids avoid social situations because they don’t believe that they have much to offer a new friend. While words of affirmation and praise can make a difference, lots of kids need positive experiences to feel confident moving forward. 

One of the strengths ADHD kids have is “passionate interest” in the things they love. ADHD kids find great satisfaction and joy in pursuing their favorite hobbies, fandoms, interests and activities. Yet the super-skill of being passionately interested is not a skill that all kids have. 

Parents can encourage their kid’s interest and deepen their experiences by engaging with their interests. This could mean bringing your child to events like conventions and book signing, or connecting kids with local or online interest groups where they can interact with others and practice asking questions and conversing with strangers – with appropriate supervision of course! Or you can help your kid seek out (or start!) an interest-based social group, like a regular game night, book club, or viewing party. 

By supporting your kids in this way, you increase the odds of meeting other like-minded kids who share their interests. This shared activity makes it easier to make new friends and works wonders when your child is ready to step out of their comfort zone socially. 

#4 See the Big Picture

Short-term letdowns, like a friend canceling plans or an awkward encounter with a peer, can be especially discouraging to ADHD kids. Once the initial strong emotion has passed (which may take a while, since ADHD brains take longer to re-regulate after an emotional trigger), help your child to take a bird’s eye view and look at the situation to see the big picture. This helps kids check their perspective and look beyond their individual disappointments to see the bigger picture. 

Ask them, “How have you interacted with this person in the past?” or “What happened or what evidence do you have that the person who behaved badly was really upset with you?”

Teach your child that connecting with others is a practice, like cultivating a garden. We can plant great seeds, but we can’t control the weather. Your child can do their best to create conditions for friendships to develop, but some things are out of our control.As long as your child continues to follow their strengths and interests into places where they can connect with others, you increase the likelihood that these seeds of connection will develop into friendship. 

#5 Acknowledge and Maintain Growth 

Although the term “late bloomer” is metaphorical, not medical, it does communicate something accurate about ADHD, Autistic, or other neurodivergent children. These conditions are all neurodevelopmental disorders, which means that the parts of the brain governing higher-order social skills take longer to develop. This is why many neurodivergent kids feel, and appear, “behind” socially. 

Even when your kid feels behind with their social skills, don’t give up. It’s important to acknowledge the growth you see and keep going. Whenever your child has any social, however small, it should be appreciated and reinforced. Building competence takes planning, repetition, and a lot of trial and error. By setting an example for your kids of a growth mindset (not a fixed mindset) you can help them progress closer toward their social goals.

So How Did Things Go For Alex and Making New Friends? 

After several conversations with her parents and guidance counselor about his difficulties connecting with her peers, Alex felt open to trying a couple of new things. 

She changed an elective class to one that would introduce her to a wider range of students and she joined a school club and a community group that matched her interests. Today Alex is optimistic about the progress she is making. Her attitude about the future is more optimistic and she knows that connecting with her community and making friends is a life skill. One that will continue to develop through high school and beyond!

Making friends is an important part of growing up. Watching your kids struggle with friendships is hard on everyone.

Join me during Friendship Week with Bright & Quirky to explore all the ways you (and your very special child) can learn the skills of friendship so no one misses out on the joys of friendship as they get older.

And if I can help you, please don’t hesitate to reach out or follow me on YouTube for more!

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