“Vibrant” is how Caroline Poisson describes her seven-year-old son. “He’s incredible, enthusiastic and curious,” she said. “And then there’s a side of what we call kryptonite and we talk about his ADHD brain, where there are some things that are just really hard for him.” Like many kids with ADHD, Poisson’s son struggles with executive function skills – the cognitive abilities that help people plan, stay organized, pay attention, control emotions and make decisions. Without a good grasp on these skills it can be hard to make friends and strengthen the social skills needed to navigate adulthood.
Parents of kids with ADHD often say their kids miss social cues, such as when peers are bored, hurt or offended, according to Amori Mikami, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada. “It can lead to a lot of outbursts or temper tantrums or whining and complaining or arguing with the friend,” she said. Mikami researches peer relationships, specifically focusing on children with ADHD. Additionally, she developed a parental friendship coaching (PFC) model where parents of elementary school-age kids can learn to support their child in making friends.
PFC programs can be found in participating mental health centers or specialized ADHD treatment centers. If a PFC program is not offered nearby, Mikami recommended sharing a link to the treatment manual with a local provider who has experience providing behavioral parent training for families of kids with ADHD and can work with the family to implement the treatment.
Participants meet with mental health professionals and other parents of kids with ADHD for 10 sessions over several weeks to practice strategies to improve their child’s social behavior. While the parental friendship coaching model can be used individually, a group format lends itself to community and collaboration among parents. Research trials of PFC have shown improvement in children’s social behaviors such as taking turns, sharing and negotiating. A key goal for many parents who use this approach is to help their child have successful playdates and — ideally — deepen their friendships.
Poisson, who found a PFC program online, had been in counseling herself after her son’s diagnosis and felt the program was a way that she could build on that support to help her son. Families where kids have started to be excluded from social activities with peers, are the ones who usually benefit from this program, according to Mikami. “The whole idea is that if your child doesn’t have any friends right now and really just doesn’t have the social skills to make friends, then throwing them in there on their own is too much and they need more scaffolding,” she said.
Building a strong parent-child relationship
When parents start PFC, the first things they focus on are strategies to strengthen their bond with their child. The parental friendship coaching model encourages parents like Poisson to spend special time connecting with their child so they’re more likely to be receptive to feedback. Examples of special time may include sitting with their child as they draw and narrating the process or letting the child teach the parent a game.