Category Archives: Social skills

What a difference a friend makes

Two children playing with a dog

Two children playing with a dog (Photo credit: BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives)

Like many kids with ADHD, M doesn’t always get along well with other children. He makes friends, but has trouble keeping them. In the past, his behaviour has been unpredictable and outrageous at times. It isn’t surprising that other children don’t want to hang around with him as they don’t know what he will react to and when, nor what he’ll do.  He’s been known to kick, punch or even strangle another child, when he’s angry. Fortunately, he’s learning to manage his anger. But he still doesn’t always get social cues. I’ve watched him with other kids, totally in their faces and watched them physically recoiling while he chats on. This is pretty typical of ADHD kids – they tend to he have little concept of personal space and don’t clue in to social cues like facial expressions or body language.


Some children are naturally solitary and don’t much care if they have friends to hang around with after school and on weekends. Not M. He has always craved the company of other children. He can amuse himself, but too much time alone and he complains about “being bored.” More significantly, M’s lack of a social support network (adult speak for a “best friend”) has been a big source of his anxiety.


For a few years, he hung around with a couple of children who lived in the neighbourhood. They were a bit older and as the youngest child in the group, M got bossed around. As a group, they played highly imaginative outdoor games, but there was always lots of drama. It became increasingly clear to my husband and I that the group dynamics weren’t the healthiest, especially for M. But no matter how many times he came home upset at something that had happened, he couldn’t let go of this relationship. The Devil he knew was better than having no one to hang around with. Eventually things reached a tipping point and we told M he couldn’t go inside their house to play. Gradually, he lost interest in playing with them.


This left him pretty much on his own. Even though he seemed to get along well with a couple of the kids in his class, he was never invited to play with them after school or on weekends.


However, things began to turn around last winter. After defending another child in the after school program against a racial taunt, he began to be invited to play at the child’s home on a regular basis. This was about the same time that he lost several friends because he used a racial slur – one door closes and the other open. Around the same time, M also became good friends with a child from karate and they played together regularly on weekends.  Although M’s friends know each other, M hangs out with them separately. Groups, even small ones, are still challenging for M.


Both M’s friends have high energy siblings, so neither child is particularly put off by M’s behaviour. They are both capable of  dealing with M when he starts getting bossy. As M has become more comfortable and secure in his relationship with each child, his need to be in charge has decreased. Relationships among 11 year old’s rarely run smoothly, but there haven’t been too many disagreements. When they do occur, the kids work it out themselves.


Over the last couple of months, we’ve noticed that M seems much happier and confident. Knowing he has friends who “have his back” has significantly boosted his self-esteem.  He seems less anxious about going to school. In the past, M has spent a fair amount of time trying to get attention from other kids, even though they may not be the best fit for his personality or share the same interests. he doesn’t seem to be doing this as much. Since school started, he’s been much more willing to participate in class activities than he was when school ended. He’s getting along with his classmates and not getting into conflicts with other children, either at school or in the after school program. He’s not suddenly perfect – he told me tonight that he’s been bumping into classmates with his scooter as they go up to class in the morning and this morning, one of them kicked him after M bumped into his foot.  Typical M – he didn’t seem to understand why the other child reacted badly.


No doubt some of M’s new attitude can be attributed to the fact that he’s a year older and is gradually becoming more mature. He is increasingly able to control his temper and react appropriately. But I think having two good true friends has played a big part in his growing confidence levels. Even though he and his friends go to different schools, he knows he’s not completely alone. Since he doesn’t feel so socially isolated, he’s less anxious, which means he can make better choices. The more he succeeds, the more positive feedback he gets from his teachers and other adults. We’ve seen first hand the impact of the vicious circle of negative feedback; now we’re seeing the impact of positive feedback.


Most kids need at least one close friend – one person who shares their interests, and with whom they can do stuff with and sometimes just hang out.Kids like M, who have  social and behavioural challenges, really need one or two close friends. But that very behaviour can get in the way of making friends. In the past, the odd time M was invited to another child’s home, I can remember mentally crossing my fingers and hoping he would be invited back. More often than not, there would be some sort of conflict and M wasn’t invited back. Now, M has two good buddies and knows he will be invited back.



Bad chemistry – teaching my kid to deal with people who don’t like him

Reaction of two people whose personal space ar...

Reaction of two people whose personal space are in conflict. See also (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

M came home from a recent visit to another child’s house, upset about something that had happened between them.  Turns out the child, who M had not previously spent a lot of time with outside of daycare, revealed that he is friends with B.  I don’t know the details, but B and M have a history and M does not like him at all.  M expressed his disapproval  about his friend’s relationship with B.  Didn’t go over very well – the other child locked M out of his house.

We agreed that locking someone out of your house, especially when the other person is visiting, is not very nice.  But sometimes, as I explained to M, it’s best to keep your opinions to yourself.  Whatever happened to cause M to dislike B happened several years ago.  Since they don’t go to the same school or share the same hobbies, they have little or no contact with each other.  We told M that he had no right to get upset with someone else for being friend’s with B. Moreover, whatever burr he had in his saddle about B, he should just let it go.

Flash forward to a couple of days later… I get a call from the day camp saying that M has had a minor conflict with another child.  Turns out B’s brother was also at the day camp and he and M encountered each other during the day. For whatever reason, a friend of the B’s brother started kicking M. Then the brother got involved.  Apparently, he was upset about M having insulted their dad about 3 or 4 years ago – these kids have memories like elephants. M defended himself with a stick and got mouthy with a counselor when she tried to separate him from the stick. No one was hurt and M spent some time in the office with his favourite counselor.

Like lots of kids with ADHD, interpersonal relationships are often challenging for M.  He doesn’t always get social cues – I’ve seen other kids backing away from him as M keeps on talking. He often gets too close to people by invading their personal space. We know the school is doing their best to help M improve his social skills. But what to do in this situation, when another child seems to be holding a grudge against M and continues to bug hi? Plus, he’s getting his brother and other kids involved in carrying out his “vendetta.”

The sensible parenting approach – encouraging M to let go of whatever was between he and B – wasn’t going to work in this case.  We suggested to M that he should just stay away from B’s brother at camp and if the child insisted on engaging with him, M should run to the nearest counselor. He did cross paths with the brother during the course of the week, but the second time around, they got along.

We’ve all been in this situation:  having to deal with someone who just doesn’t like us. It doesn’t feel very nice, but it’s part of life. maybe we did something, inadvertently or deliberately, to get up the other person’s nose. Sometimes, it’s just bad chemistry – no matter what we do, the other person just doesn’t like the “cut of our jib.”  We aren’t going to like everyone and vice versa. In these situations, the best advice is usually to walk away or avoid the person as much as possible. It is much harder to do if the other person (or their proxy) gets in your grill whenever you see them.

I decided in this case to be as honest with M as I could. I told him that some people are just difficult (I think I used the word “pinhead”. We can’t control their behaviour, but we have to manage ours. Engaging B or his brother and various minions is not productive. In these sorts of situations, walking away really is the best policy. This may also require ignoring what the other person is saying. Neither of these strategies is easy for a 10-year old who struggles with relationships. Dealing with people who don’t like us is hard. But, as I explained to M, it’s a skill we all have to learn.

I’m sure B is a perfectly nice kid. I just hope M gets through the summer without running into him


Smile…and the whole world really does smile with you

Smile 2

Image via Wikipedia

M, like a lot of kids with ADHD, has a great deal of difficulty reading social cues. Since humans are essentially pack animals, we use this information to guide our interactions with others.

So for kids like M, who don’t seem to notice facial expressions or body language, social interactions can often be challenging.  They are the kids who seem to be a step behind the other kids in class and take a joke too far or laugh just a bit longer than the other kids. We have seen people visibly edging away from him, as M continues to chatter on and crowd their personal space. He probably does notice some of the reaction, but doesn’t know how to process the information in order to adjust his behaviour.

The fact that M has a temper and gets easily frustrated doesn’t help him socially. Last year, as part of our on-going  of efforts to help him better manage his behaviour, we hired one of his drama teachers to come in and work with him one-on-one. In addition to teaching drama, she also works with adults and children who have anger managment issues. He had been taking drama classes on the weekends and during the summer for a couple of years and had developed a real rapport with her.  At the time, M was going through a particularly difficult period at school and positve encouragement was in short supply.  So it was a bonus that she seemed to understand M and genuinely wanted him to succeed.

One of the things she worked on with M was helping him to read body language. One of the cues she explained was smiling: if you aren’t smiling, people won’t want to approach you. Interestingly, different types of smiles send different types of signals to other people. A closed smile is seen by others as mistrustful. However, an open smile – showing your teeth and gums – is seen as being “welcoming” and “friendly.” Apparently there are over 50 different types of smiles!

In order to demonstrate to M that an open-mouth smile works, I decided that I would try smiling more myself. 

I am not a natural smiler – people often think I am upset or angry, when I am just standing around daydreaming. It isn’t that I never smiled. But I tended not to show my teeth. Not surprisingly, people tended not to smile back.

Part of the reason I didn’t smile with my mouth open very much is that I had a major overbite as a kid – Bucky the Beaver had nothing on me. I wore braces for years and like most teenagers with a mouth full of metal, I rarely smiled. Certainly not withe my mouth open. Plus, I had lost a front tooth in an unfortunate accident on my younger brother’s brand-new banana bike. I didn’t much care for having my picture taken as a teenager/young adult, but when I was captured on film, I didn’t smile, except maybe to tilt my lips up slightly at the corners.

I was reassured to read recently that as a young woman, Queen Elizabeth did not consider herself to be a smiley person. Given her job requires she spend a lot of time mixing with the masses, I expect she has had to learn to smile. Plus she has had many years of practice.

So I started smiling – pearly whites on full blast – at everyone I met. In the elevator, on the bus, in the grocery store. No matter how grumpy they looked, I smiled. Even if we didn’t made eye contact, I smiled in their general direction. 

For the first few weeks, it was a conscious effort – I had to continually remind myself to open my mouth and curve my lips upward. Since it wasn’t a natural action, I would sometimes practice in the mirror in the elevators. While I made sure I was alone, I bet I looked pretty funny on the security cameras.

I wasn’t surprised that people smiled back. Not everyone, but many. Smiling is pretty contagious – most of us smile when someone smiles at us. What surprised me was that after a few months, smiling became second nature to me. I didn’t need to give my self a mental nudge to do it and I would often find myself smiling, even if I was alone.

But the biggest surprise was that by smiling a lot more, I began to be a happier person. I wasn’t unhappy before, but I began to feel lighter. Little things didn’t bother me as much. Of course, there are exceptions to this – smiling doesn’t make you immune to a bad day. But it has certainly helped me have many more better days.

Apparently the positive effects of smiling on mental health have been demonstrated by scientific studies. I didn’t know this when I started. I simply wanted to be a good example for M. 

The sessions with his drama teacher didn’t have a sigificant impact on M’s ability to get along with others. I am optimistic he will learn and that his smile will be part of his tool kit.  As I have discovered, the smiling’s biggest impact is on how you start to see the world.  Once you start smiling – using both your teeth and your eyes – it is really hard to stop. And it feels so good, why would you want to?