Helping Teens with ADHD Build Social Confidence
5 practical tips for overcoming social anxiety.
Posted July 29, 2018
Does your teen with ADHD dislike being around people—often preferring his own company or playing computer games to face-to-face interactions? It can be tough to watch your son or daughter struggle with social awkwardness or anxiety, but it’s not as unusual as you may think. Many adolescents—especially those with ADHD—struggle with friendships and personal interactions.
Whether it’s uncomfortable for your teen to figure out where to sit during lunch period, order fries at a drive-through, or invite someone over to watch a movie, insecurity about dealing with people interferes with their ability to live as fully as both of you would like. Even if they may not admit it (and teens often don’t), isolating behaviors like staying up in their rooms for hours online shows you that something’s amiss.
Everybody needs friends—people who laugh at our jokes, comfort us during low points and share in our successes. These relationships sustain us. Part of living a satisfying life is finding people to interact with and navigating the normal ups-and-downs that come with connections. Since these relationships are commonplace and instinctual, many mistakenly assume they're easy—and as a result, social anxiety is often misunderstood. People frequently hide their difficulties by being shy and spending time alone. They try to keep their nervousness from peers, ashamed that they can’t be like everyone else and engage with peers more easily. To make matters worse, teens with ADHD often misread social cues or miss critical interpersonal signals altogether, which can further alienate them. Often, these kids want to change—but can’t figure out what to do or how to do it.
Social media and excessive amounts of time spent on the computer will exacerbate any teen’s “social situation problem." Negative comments, teasing, and bullying happen online almost instantaneously. With 24/7 access, there’s no escaping the backlash of negative comments, or teasing and bullying if you misspeak or do something foolish.
Worried about what others think or post about them, teens who are already tentative about social interactions may become more afraid of putting themselves in novel situations and reaching out to make friends. There’s nothing like other kids’ posts about their wonderful their lives to intimidate your child even more! When you throw in the challenges that many teens with ADHD have with reading and processing social and emotional cues, they feel unable to measure up. It’s a self-defeating, frightening cycle. So, what can you do to help?
Overcoming social anxiety or avoidance is tricky. You’ll have to get your teen on board for this plan of action to work. Try these steps:
1. Call the pediatrician to discuss the current situation and your thoughts about therapy and possibly medication. Ask for an appointment where the doctor can make these recommendations to your son or daughter. Kids are more likely to hear any suggestions when they don’t come from you. Therapy really helps with teaching teens how to interact with people more comfortably. They build a relationship with a caring adult who, through discussions and role plays, can show them how to reach out to others with more confidence. The therapist can also offer you support and facilitate family discussions on hot-button issues such as screen time limits, college plans and conflict resolution.
2. Before this appointment, make a time to talk with your son or daughter about the topic of improving the skills for social interactions. Online friends satisfy one aspect of relating to others, but they don’t assist kids with learning to improve their understanding of how their words and actions affect others and vice versa. Use the metaphor of exercising to explain why these skills, like muscles, require practice to strengthen over time. Reaffirm your goal for her to become the independent adult you both want to see and strengthening these skills will get them there. Just like professional athletes need trainers and a customized workout, you now realize that your family needs an action plan to reduce her anxiety with social situations. That’s why you’re going to meet with the pediatrician.
3. Expect pushback. Your teen’s been isolating themselves successfully for a while; it’s safe and predictable. Stepping outside their comfort zone starts with courage and small efforts. It builds over time and everyone needs to be patient.
4. Help build confidence by reminding him or her of times in the past when they did something that frightened them and they succeeded anyway. Try to link that previous success with whatever is daunting now. Anxiety combined with ADHD frequently erase memories of past successes. Teens need these connections to reassure themselves that they are indeed capable of moving forward.
5. Notice small successes, give positive feedback and help them pay attention to changes they are making as well. It’s all too easy to focus on what’s not happening instead of what is.
Reducing social anxiety, like building muscles, takes time and repetition. Whatever small successes kids experience along the way will eventually lead them to improved self-confidence and further steps in the future.