Fitting in at school: ADHD and friendships

High School friendships are hard for everyone

High school reunion. Is there another event in your adult life that induces such a polarising response? For some, High School was the peak of popularity and connection, the beginning of lifelong friendships. For others, especially those struggling with ADHD and friendships, it was a lonely place to be endured, where free time was more difficult than tests or homework.

I recently attended my own High School Reunion. It’s been many years, yet I was still incredibly anxious attending. I’m not even sure how I got myself to the door.

You see, I could never quite fit in at High School. Making and maintaining friendships was like a foreign language to me. I didn’t pick up on social cues, couldn’t play team sports because I had terrible balance issues, and I was more emotional. Worst of all, I felt that I was the problem.

If only I had a magic wand to go back and explain ADHD and neurodiversity to my younger self. At least now, even without a magic wand, our children (especially our previously missed young girls) are more likely to have a diagnosis and a teacher trained in working with neurodiverse children. Now we have some options.

The challenges of ADHD and friendship

Whilst everyone’s experience of being neurodivergent is different, there are a few common threads for those of us with ADHD that impact on friendships.

Overwhelm and boredom – two sides of the same ADHD coin

The ADHD brain can swing quickly between extremes, sometimes finding it difficult to commit attention and time to friendships, then simply finding them boring because their brain jumps around a million thoughts and their friend focuses on merely one. The inconsistency can make others feel that you only reach out when you have nothing better to do.

Looking like you don’t care – poor memory, distraction and disorganisation

Friends will naturally feel that the people who ask questions and remember what is going on in their lives are their true friends. Unfortunately for those of us with ADHD, it’s hard enough to remember our details, keep our diary organised, avoid getting distracted on the way to meet you, let alone remember the details of your life that ‘show’ we care.

Social anxiety and rejection sensitivity disorder

These two often coexisting diagnoses are commonly associated with ADHD. Making friends requires reading situations, body language and even emotional meaning. These can all be super challenging when you have ADHD. Add in years of being rejected for simple miscommunications or miscues, and putting yourself out there to make friends can feel more like walking with a tiger.

Social supports at school are available

Being neurodiverse in a neurotypical group at school can be like finding out you are a square peg in a round hole. Unfortunately, in Australia, there is currently no real funding for schools to support neurodiverse students unless they meet specific Autism criteria.

This often means the onus is on parents and carers to advocate for their children with ADHD, often educating teachers along the way. Luckily, most teachers want to see all their students succeed and are only too happy to help.

Individual Learning Plans (ILPs)

Parents of any child struggling to achieve their potential can request an Individual Learning Plan (ILP). Your school may also initiate the conversation. An ILP outlines your child’s learning goals, how neurodiversity impacts them, how the school will support them and what reasonable adjustments or strategies are agreed upon to help each child participate and learn and meet their individual needs.

ILPs can include social support. For example:

  • Ben finds it challenging to self-select into a group. It helps if teachers define groups for everyone so he can focus on the work itself.

Neurodiversity awareness workshops

It can also help to speak with your child’s classroom teacher or year-level coordinator about informal ways the school can assist, or ways they can broadly improve understanding. Some schools get great results from running educational workshops around neurodiversity for the student body, or relevant year groups. We recently presented at a Sydney school for just this reason. This is what teachers had to say when we were finished:

Some points of highlight for the students were their interest in the scientific explanation of neurodiversity and the brain, the ability to ask questions and feel part of the experience and the way in which you discussed neurodiversity as a collective experience, making those who are neurodivergent feel a greater sense of belonging and those who know neurodivergent people understand more about their behaviours, feelings and executive functioning. 

I am hopeful that we will have more opportunities to work together in the future on our shared mission for creating inclusive, safe, respectful, educated and understanding environments for us ‘neurospicy’ folk. 

Your child’s tribe might be outside of school

Just because your child is alone at school does not necessarily mean they are lonely. They may be more comfortable in their own company, taking a break from masking at recess and lunchtime.

However, we all need to be socially supported and connected in some part of our lives. Sometimes, the best way to find your tribe is to look for like-minded people who share your interests, such as groups for chess, taekwondo, or online gaming communities.

NOTE: Online gaming communities can be a fabulous source of community. One of my 12-year-old clients struggles at school with bullying but has their own YouTube Channel and has flown with Mum to meet friends he made through YouTube. The key is age-appropriate supervision and ground rules. The e-Safety Commissioner has great resources to keep kids safe online.

Other times it can help to find a group designed to help build social skills with peers. Here in Canberra, we are fortunate to have several organisations set up specifically to build neurodivergent communities.

  • Daydream Machine – Supporting young people with all forms of disability, including neurodiversity, from 9-21 years of age to explore and build their talents in music, arts, and technology. Parents think kids learn in a safe and inclusive space, while kids think they are ‘doing cool stuff’.
  • Ignition Gamers – With so many of our neurodivergent teens and young adults turning to video games for entertainment, Ignition Gamers builds on that passion bringing teens and young adults together to play in person and develop confidence with real-world relationships.
  • Dice 4 Diversity – Originally established to provide social education in a fun environment utilising role-player games like Dungeons and Dragons, Dice 4 Diversity is now a strong community of school-aged tweens and teens who enjoy attending weekly social ‘skills’ sessions and return over school holidays just for fun.

At Social Living Solutions we understand how hard it can be to ‘fit in’, especially around ADHD and friendships. We work with your child to achieve their unique social goals, whether that’s understanding how neurotypical friendships work, finding a tribe outside of school, or leaning into passions and being comfortable as they are. There is no agenda here. Book a free call today.

How to Have a Happy Family

My passion is to support families, and the individuals within them, by equipping them to connect, communicate and have fun together.

Families of all shapes and sizes struggle with the same fundamental issues of different agendas, standards and expectations. Every member of your family may need something entirely different to the rest, especially in families with neurodiverse members who can often struggle to feel a sense of belonging. 

Embracing the values that make your family unique by learning to connect (or reconnect) through communication, compromise and prioritising relationships within the family can take your family from stress to a place of family joy and happiness.

Communication

One of the first steps towards healthy family communication is mastering the I-message (not the phone variety!). This starts with recognising the problem is not the person you are speaking to, but rather their actions and how they impact you.

I-messages are a simple form of communication that are particularly helpful in conflict situations, or encouraging children to adjust behaviour without punishment. I-messages comprise three parts:

  1. A non-blameful/non-judgemental description of the child’s (or adult’s) behaviour
  2. How you feel about the behaviour
  3. The impact or cost to you or some other person

E.g. When you twirl around in the lounge room, I feel worried because you may hit the television and we cannot afford a new one. If it broke, none of us could enjoy the shows we wanted to watch.

Using these I-messages, instead of blaming with ‘you-messages’, we explain to the other member of our family (yes, this works with adults too!) how their actions impact us. If it doesn’t work in the first instance, actively listen to their point of view or needs, then move towards a solution that works for both parties.

No Lose Method – Compromise!

Traditional (or might I say old fashioned?) family models focus on parental discipline and child obedience. This win-lose conflict resolution style may compel behaviour choices in the immediate, but it seldom influences values and choices next time. Unfortunately, this parent wins/child loses parenting style often leads to children who resent their parents.

The opposite style of conflict resolution, where child wins/parent loses, is similarly ineffective, as it leads to parents resenting children (yes, it happens) and children who become selfish and inconsiderate.

The trick to having a happy family is to compromise and you meet the needs of both parties by finding a solution that is acceptable to both. In so many cases, between adult members or between adult and child, the act of both offering a solution, discussing and then actioning a win-win option can bring you closer together.

E.g. When a child wants to twirl, and an adult wants to keep the TV safe, the Child can twirl outside or in their room.

Put the Relationship First

I know from personal experience that shifting family dynamics is challenging, and long-held behaviour patterns are particularly so. But I also know it is worth the effort. Many of us parent as we were brought up ourselves and have to unlearn before moving forward. It helps if you focus on the end goal.

You are reading this because you value your family. You want to know the secret ingredient to have a happy family. I’m here to tell you that the secret is to prioritise your family relationships. Once you have done so, the changes and shift in dynamics will seem easier, and your neurodiverse family will become the happy family you want it to be.

If you would like to learn more about how you can have your own happy family, I invite you to join me at my FREE Recharge Family Joy Sessions with Wendy Marman. In Canberra on Wednesday 16, 23 & 30 March from 7:30 – 9:00 pm at Western Community Hub (also available live online).

Christmas Tips for Neurodiverse Families

There are three simple rules I keep coming back to. I recommend them to my clients and I try to remember them myself. They are essential for neurodiverse families at this holiday time of the year. So my Christmas Tips are similar to my everyday life tips.

1. You know your family best.
2. You are your neurodiverse child’s best advocate.
3. Keep your own cup full to benefit your whole family.

The pressure of Christmas expectations, long summer holidays, visiting family or friends that may not know your child as well all deplete your child’s energy bank. This is especially true of neurodiverse children. My Christmas tips help my family and many of my clients.

You Know Your Family Best

Many families experience the challenges of different personalities and often unwanted parenting advice over the holiday period. For families with neurodiverse members, including autism, ADHD or any number of diagnoses, the judgements from these large gatherings can be painful and lead to meltdowns or confrontations. There is no one solution here, but I want to remind you to trust your instincts.

You know your family best. Even if you don’t have a solution all the time or an easy way to avoid triggers as they change. Trust your instinct as a parent.

Perhaps you think it would help if you stayed in a hotel rather than with family, so there is a quiet place at the end of the day where your autistic child can recharge. Maybe you realise that the sugar for Christmas Breakfast triggers ADHD reactions in your child and can offer to cook up a savoury special for everyone instead.

Planning ahead and listening to your inner voice will help your child have a neurodiverse friendly Christmas that everyone will enjoy.

You Are Your Childs Best Advocate

Advocating can be difficult, but it is also rewarding. As parents of neurodiverse children, we get used to advocating on their behalf to schools and other child based activity groups. It’s much harder at Christmas when it becomes our job to advocate for our child to our parents or grandparents, even to our crazy Aunt who cannot understand difference at all.

I have been there. I have chastised my child for behaviour when I should have been more empathic. I have chastised my child for behaviour when I should have chastised the other party for disrespecting my child. And I have felt guilty later. So have many of the parents I work with.

You may experience a moment of discomfort respectfully explaining to your parents/or other awkward family members that you are taking your child for a quiet walk instead of punishing them.

For your child, this could become the most significant part of their holiday. Knowing you had their back. Others will have to get used to modern parenting and respecting children too.

Keep Your Cup Full To Benefit The Whole Family

I have spoken about this before and will likely again because it’s so important. It can be challenging to advocate for your child to other family members or pre-empt meltdowns or confrontations. It may feel like I am asking too much of you, and it is adding more worry. Please love yourself more than this. I want you to feel empowered, capable and to know that it is ok to make mistakes!

You will be more capable, more empowered, and more forgiving of yourself if you fill your cup too. If you love Christmas with your family, then go forth and enjoy. However, if it is a day filled with arguments and judgement that depletes both you and your neurodiverse child, can you alternate years? Spend the alternate on holiday at the beach filling your cup?

If you can look after yourself as a parent, you will better advocate and smooth the path for your child. Neurodiverse or not.

Christmas tips take away: take that bubble bath on Christmas Eve, limit your time with family members who wind you up, or take a long walk before you see them. What you need is important too.

Sending you peace, love and joy this festive season.

Patricia