ADHD, Boys & Social Challenges

By Eve Kessler, Esq.


Ryan Wexelblatt has devoted his career to working with boys with ADHD • In a recent webinar for ADDitude this licensed clinical social worker shared several strategies to help boys with ADHD learn to compensate for their shortcomings, in order to prepare them to become resilient and independent young adults

Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW, specializes in working with boys who have ADHD. He views the condition as a developmental delay in executive functioning and emphasizes the importance of boys with ADHD learning compensatory skills and strategies to overcome social challenges. “It’s not grades that make for a successful life,” Wexelblatt says. “It’s the ability to form social relationships and manage life independently.” Your role as a parent is to help your son develop the independence he needs to function at peak potential when he enters the adult world.

How does Wexelblatt propose doing that? Essentially by helping your son improve his lagging skills, and motivating him to persevere despite his challenges. Following are several suggestions to reach those goals:

Develop Self-Directed Talk

Wexelblatt notes that kids with ADHD are often “motor mouths.” They talk too much and lack the intuitive ability to internalize verbal thinking as a way to help control their behavior and master new skills.

By sharing your internal dialogues with your child, you can teach him social accountability, perspective-taking and reflection without directly telling him he’s talking too much. For instance, if he is having a one-sided conversation with you, you might say, “My thought right now is I’m bored with this conversation because you’re talking at me about your own interests and not discussing things we can both enjoy.” Or you might ask, “If you were talking to one of your buddies right now, do you think he’d be interested?”

You can further help develop your son’s “inner coach” by front-loading information—proactively discussing and demystifying what’s going to happen during an activity. For example, if your son plays baseball, discuss what his upcoming ballgame will look like. Explain how he might feel if he gets overwhelmed during the game and consider concrete exit strategies if he has to leave. Calmly talk through different scenarios so he can gain a sense of comfort.

Don’t argue, debate, or try to reason with him when he’s upset or agitated; he won’t be able to “hear” you.

Improve Non-Verbal Working Memory

It’s hard for kids with ADHD to picture things in the future. Using backwards planning can help. This strategy requires that they begin with the end result in mind, visualize what they want that to look like, and plan backwards from there. Say your son has to construct a model of a volcano for a science project. Have him draw a picture of what he wants his completed project to look like. With the visual in front of him, he can then write down the materials he needs to make the project (clay, baking soda, poster board, etc.); list his next steps (research volcano facts, print out pictures, prepare ingredients); and ultimately build the project to resemble his picture.

Move From Prompt To Independence

In school, teachers regularly use prompts as tools to support instruction.

These can be verbal (telling student how to respond), modeled (showing how to respond), or physical (e.g., touching a shoulder to re-focus a student).

When practiced correctly, the instructor uses prompts for an appropriate amount of time then systematically cuts back as the necessary skills and strategies become internalized. Sometimes, however, teachers take the simpler route of allowing prompts to remain in place without teaching the proficiencies needed to fade them.

Special education teams routinely write prompt-based supports into students’ IEP objectives. If your son uses prompts, make sure his IEP is written in a way that requires him to master the objectives independently without prompts. For example: When frustrated, Henry will resolve classroom conflicts without name-calling or pushing by remaining in his seat and practicing self-management skills, 4 out of 5 times; or After receiving verbal instructions, Henry will complete the requested assignment independently and in a timely manner, 4 out of 5 times.

Outside of school, parents often get in the way of their son’s development by solving his problems and micromanaging his activities long after it’s necessary or appropriate. It’s understandable that parents don’t want their kids to fail. But by keeping their sons safe from short-term difficulties or disappointments (e.g. struggling with a project or failing a test), parents deprive them of opportunities for learning and developing skills and strategies for independence.

Encouraging Growth

Don’t fall into the trap of serving as your son’s executive functioning for too long. Instead, gradually release responsibility and help him develop age-appropriate skills.

  • Do not enable “learned helplessness” or avoidance of non-preferred tasks. Boys with ADHD often feel stupid or incapable. They learn that if they act helpless, you will do the task they can’t do or don’t want to do.
  • Create ‘scaffolding’ to teach new skills and shift responsibility from you to your son. Set clear and attainable expectations for your son to help around the house. If the two of you are stuck in an “I do; you watch” or “I do; you help” dynamic, slowly change the framework to one where you fade the prompts so he does the task while you help—and, finally, while you watch.

This article is based on an ADDitude webinar by Ryan Wexelblatt, a licensed clinical social worker and school social worker who contributes expert Q&As to ADDitude’s series ADHD in Boys, and facilitates the ADHD Dude Facebook Group and YouTube channel. Eve Kessler, Esq., a criminal appellate attorney is Executive Director of SPED*NET, Special Education Network of Wilton (CT), and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.

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