Why Distractible Children Have a Hard Time Keeping Friends

Distractible children and distorted thoughts about peers often go hand in hand.

Posted Mar 03, 2014

Distractible children are often internally preoccupied and, therefore, have trouble accurately processing the behaviors and actions of their peers. This leaves them feeling socially disconnected, further rejected, and often dejected. Based on my observations and conversations with well over a thousand distracted children in my office, below is some further discussion about the chaotic peer relations of distracted children.

In my first book, Why Can’t You Read My Mind?, I discussed how toxic thoughts (e.g., “You always have to be right.” or “You’re just a selfish husband.”) create tremendous strain in intimate relationships. Toxic thoughts in couples lead to what I term the Three-D Effect. The Three-D Effect involves three Ds which stand for Distraction, Distance, and Disconnect.

The Three-D effect also seems to contribute to the peer problems of distracted children. Specifically, their distractibility leads them to not accurately respond to their peers’ words and actions. These misunderstandings then lead distracted children to form toxic thoughts about their peers, driving a wedge in their peer relationships.

Distracted children tend to make these over exaggerations toward school and homework, as well. While all children have some level of toxic thoughts toward peers to some degree, I have observed that many distracted children frequently view their peer problems in an all or nothing, toxic manner. This can be a big problem in making and keeping friends.

Yes, all children are in the process of learning how to make and keep friends, and may get some occasional toxic thoughts. The toxic thoughts of distracted children toward their peers, however, can create an unfair disadvantage for them. Distracted children, with their limited ability to focus, have a short fuse and lack the ability and patience to go through the day to day ups and downs with friends.

So if a distracted child faces a disappointment with a peer such that he feels that he is not being directly listened to, is being ignored, or is being teased, the distracted child seems to be more prone to exaggerating this negative event. Examples of the toxic thoughts that distracted children have toward their peers include:

“He always has to butt in!”

"Nothing is fair, he always gets his way!"

“He is always a jerk to me!”

“She is so stupid!”

“It's his fault. He always gets me in trouble!”

There is a problematic cycle that ensues. When distracted children get besieged with toxic thoughts this further adds to their distractibility. By this I mean that toxic thoughts in distracted children, as illustrated above, promote more confusion for these children to make sense of what is happening in their interactions with peers. 

To detoxify your child's thinking about peers, be patient and supportive. Start with being empathetic and let your child vent. Then ask him or her about the traits they value in friends with whom they have conflicts. By discussing their peer related concerns, you can encourage more flexilbe, gray thinking and healthy nteractions in your child's relationships. Validate with your child that relationships do, at times, have conflicts, and being tolerant and flexible goes a long way in making and keeping friends. 

Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein is a psychologist with over twenty-two years’ experience specializing in child, adolescent, couples, and family therapy. He holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the State University of New York at Albany and completed his post doctoral internship at the University of Pennsylvania Counseling Center. He has appeared twice on the Today Show, Court TV as an expert advisor, CBS eyewitness news Philadelphia, 10! Philadelphia—NBC and public radio. Dr. Bernstein has authored four books, including the highly popular 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (Perseus Books, 2006), 10 Days to Less Distracted Child (Perseus Books 2007), Liking the Child You Love (Perseus Books 2009) and Why Can’t You Read My Mind? (Perseus Books 2003).