Yes, ADHD can impact social skills in kids, teens, and adults. Here’s why and how to cope.
Impulsivity, inattention, and hyperactivity are the three main symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that can impact all areas of a person’s life, including how they socialize.
People with ADHD may have a hard time developing healthy social skills from childhood through adulthood, especially if their condition goes untreated.
That said, it’s possible to improve your social skills at any point in life. The first step starts with understanding the potential challenges.
How does ADHD affect a person’s social skills? For starters, in social settings, folks with ADHD may experience challenges with appropriate:
- facial expressions
- tone of voice
- body language
Kate Hanselman, PMHNP at Thriveworks in Stamford, Connecticut, lives with ADHD herself and says that people with ADHD can be more prone to doing the following things during a discussion:
- interrupting or talking over others
- dominating a conversation
- jumping from topic to topic
- talking about off-topic or inappropriate subjects
She explains that these behaviors aren’t due to a lack of interest. They’re more about ADHD symptoms, like having a hard time with impulse control or remembering what they want to say next (due to working memory issues).
Hanselman says that people with inattentive ADHD can look distracted while someone is talking or have a hard time following the conversation. She notes that the following body language cues, which may suggest impatience or inattention, can impair social connection as well:
- looking away
- tapping a foot
- moving around a lot
There are many common challenges that folks with ADHD might face when navigating social situations at different ages.
“In childhood, connection with peers can be challenging due to high impulsivity or hyperactivity limiting a child’s ability to engage appropriately in social situations,” says Hanselman.
She explains that difficulties with emotional regulation can also lead to challenges in coping with:
- other necessary social tasks
“A child with untreated ADHD can find themselves cemented in a role among their peers, such as the class clown or a poor student, which can become reinforced over time due to peer pressure, continued maladaptive behaviors, or acceptance-seeking in the role,” she adds, noting that this could lead to self-esteem issues.
- peer rejection
- peer neglect
- fewer friends
- less varied social activities
Hanselman explains that kids with ADHD typically have a hard time keeping pace with their peers by traditional social metrics as well, which can carry on into adolescence and adulthood.
Teenagers with ADHD can experience the same challenges as kids with ADHD, with more issues related to increased independence and self-management.
According to Hanselman, this might include difficulty with:
- time management, leading to missed social events
- impulse control and emotional regulation, leading to difficulties in intimate or peer relationships
- inattention, leading to social isolation, as peers may interpret inattention as disinterest
“Self-esteem is affected during this time as well, since coping with social challenges becomes increasingly important and challenging during adolescence,” she adds.
“In adulthood, a person with ADHD may find a limited set of social skills due to the culmination of maladaptive behaviors and coping mechanisms they’ve developed over their lifetime,” says Hanselman.
This means that adults with ADHD might have a hard time:
- making new friends due to low self-esteem or continued maladaptive social skills
- maintaining old friendships due to difficulty following up or maintaining connection
Aside from these potential disadvantages, ADHD can enhance your social abilities in many ways.
Hanselman notes that people with ADHD can be:
- curious, interested, and interesting people with a lot of enthusiasm for their passions
- energetic, spontaneous, and fun friends who feel strongly and care deeply for others
- interesting conversational partners, as they can be adept at exploring many topics with a wide range of interests
She adds that while impulsivity can get a bad reputation, it can offer unique benefits, like:
- openness to new experiences
- trying new things
- exploring new places
All of these perks that can come along with living with ADHD can translate to a fulfilling social experience and make you a fantastic friend in someone’s life.
Rest assured, it’s possible to have a successful social life if you live with ADHD.
If you need help improving your social skills, try any of Hanselman’s tips below:
- Keep a planner to help organize appointments, dates, birthdays, and events.
- Slow down when talking to promote better conversational skills.
- Use active listening skills, like repeating what you’ve heard for clarification to help you process the information and help the conversation partner feel heard.
- Ask others questions about themselves to let them know you‘re interested in them, and try to limit your potential to dominate the conversation.
- Make a note of your thoughts in conversation so you‘re less tempted to interrupt or forget.
- Bring a small fidget toy to help you keep your attention during conversation.
- Use mindfulness to support appropriate behavior.
- Take a moment to scan the situation before acting to make sure your social behavior is appropriate for the situation.
Speaking with a therapist can also help you learn better communication and social skills. Hanselman recommends trying group therapy to hear from peers with ADHD and practice your social skills in real time as well.
For parents who want to help their kids become more socially adept, Hanselman suggests trying the following strategies:
- Set ground rules for family interactions and gently reinforce them. For example, a raised finger or kind verbal social cues like quietly saying “interrupting” can help avoid disrupted conversations.
- Highlight your child’s unique strengths.
- Help them with basic organizational skills, such as keeping a planner to review daily.
- Reinforce the importance of remembering birthdays and anniversaries, and model this while including children from a young age.
- Model the importance of being on time for things and discuss the impact of lateness.
- Promote self-regulation with direct and clear coping tools that are practiced regularly. Regular use of meditation and mindfulness can help, too.
- Foster consistent sleep routines and meal schedules to support self-regulation and stability.
- Find a therapist who specializes in social skills development or ADHD to provide your child with specialized tools to support their needs.
Hanselman adds that practicing these tips in low stakes environments, like at home, can help prepare your child for social situations outside the house.
Although other research suggests otherwise, a