ADHD and Social Skills: Challenges and Tips

Behaviors associated with ADHD can make social interactions challenging. But you can improve your social skills through modeling and practice.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neurodevelopmental condition. While its exact causes are unclear, it’s a condition that affects the area of your brain responsible for main functions like problem-solving, focus, and response control.

Symptoms of ADHD include patterns of:

  • hyperactivity
  • impulsivity
  • inattention
  • distraction

Not only can these experiences affect school or work performance, they can also impact your ability to make and maintain interpersonal relationships.

ADHD can negatively affect how you interact with others, even when you have the best intentions to make friends or engage in social activities.

This social impairment is very common and often comes from how ADHD behaviors are perceived. Inattention, for example, may come off to others as not listening or not placing value on what they have to say.

“There are several reasons why ADHD can impact social skills,” explains Kimberly Hurley, an occupational therapist specializing in pediatrics from Scotch Plains, New Jersey.

She says people living with ADHD may find it challenging to maintain focus during conversations, miss important social cues, or appear disinterested. This leads to difficulties in building and maintaining relationships, Hurley adds.

Tiffany Lindley, a nationally certified licensed professional counselor supervisor from Dallas, Texas, says that people with ADHD often have difficulty with “time blindness” or understanding and managing time.

They may get caught up in the moment — and this focus on the present may give them a shorter “time horizon.” This means they may be less likely to consider the future or feel connected to their future selves.

In social interactions, this “time blindness” can present as chronic lateness or extreme earliness. It can also cause excessive talking instead of naturally transitioning to new subjects in a conversation.

Does ADHD affect social awareness?

A 2017 study found that children with ADHD are more likely than neurotypical children to lack awareness about their social and academic deficits.

The study reported that this tendency for ADHD children to rate themselves more favorably than how teachers, parents, and peers rate them can inhibit social skill development and lead to an increased risk of poor outcomes later in life.

Research from 2016 also found children living with ADHD are more likely to have significant difficulty recognizing faces and vocal cues — another important component of social awareness.

Hurley says, “This can lead to misinterpretations, misunderstandings, and difficulties in responding appropriately in social situations.”

Many ADHD-related social challenges can be linked to the main features of ADHD: impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattention.

Social challenges related to impulsivity and hyperactivity can look like:

  • interrupting
  • finishing others’ sentences
  • speaking or acting without thinking
  • talking excessively
  • using people’s things without asking
  • intruding on personal space
  • joining activities unasked or at inappropriate times

Social challenges related to inattention can include:

  • not actively listening
  • becoming distracted mid-conversation
  • experiencing time blindness
  • forgetting to return phone calls
  • not showing up for social events
  • leaving tasks unfinished or done carelessly

Others’ perception of ADHD symptoms isn’t the only factor involved in social challenges.

Due to rejection, bullying, or social exclusion, you may also experience social challenges related to isolation and low self-esteem.

These feelings can make you less likely to connect with others socially. They can also prevent you from having the interactions necessary for improving and developing your social skills.

ADHD social symptoms in children

Children and adults share the same social symptoms of ADHD, just under different circumstances.

Lindley says children often experience rejection sensitivity, a sense of psychological pain caused by rejection and criticism. She says this can lead to a drive for perfectionism in young children.

Bullying and social exclusion can also affect them for a number of reasons, she adds. Children living with ADHD may not feel inclined to follow illogical social rules, like disliking someone just because the group dislikes them.

As a result, they may face exclusion for not following social expectations.

“Some youth with ADHD have interests different from their peers, which can be interpreted as ‘weird,’” Lindley says. “They may excel at certain subjects or activities, which can lead to envy and jealousy among peers.”

ADHD social symptoms and adults

Adults live in a very different social environment compared with children. They’ve had time to understand and, possibly, adapt to the social challenges of ADHD.

Hurley says adults are more likely to experience challenges related to time management and social commitments.

As an adult, you may find that you miss events or are repeatedly late to social gatherings and meetings. Inattention and distraction can cause you to miss important details or have difficulty staying engaged in discussions.

“This can make it challenging to fully participate in social interactions and maintain meaningful connections,” Hurley says.

Like children, adults living with ADHD can also experience rejection sensitivity and a drive for perfectionism.

You can develop and learn social skills when you live with ADHD. Hurley and Lindley recommend the following:

  • Understand your social strengths and challenges, so you know what to work on.
  • Reflect on your social interactions. You can use journaling to track patterns.
  • Study body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice and how they relate to what’s being said.
  • Practice your own non-verbal cues that demonstrate listening, like nodding, tilting your head, or making eye contact.
  • Question behaviors and social cues during interactions with loved ones and those closest to you.
  • Practice self-forgiveness and self-compassion by accepting you may not react to social situations in the same way as neurotypical people.

As a caregiver, you can help children navigate the complexities of making and maintaining interpersonal relationships by:

  • helping children build confidence and self-esteem overall
  • clearly communicating social expectations like sharing, taking turns, and showing respect
  • breaking down social expectations into steps and providing examples
  • engaging in role-play activities to showcase social skills in a safe setting
  • creating opportunities for children to interact with peers in enjoyable settings, like play-dates

Lindley suggests parents step back and evaluate themselves and the social skills they display.

“It is wise to have the same expectations for yourself as your child when it comes to things like cleanliness, punctuality, and reliability,” she says.

ADHD includes symptoms of impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattention. This can negatively affect your social interactions despite your best intentions.

Learning about social cues and practicing your own social skills can make a big difference in how you make and maintain interpersonal relationships.

By Bury