It is the winter of COVID-19. Many kids are at school online and in socially distanced classrooms. Months of quarantine, remote learning, mask wearing, and lack of physical contact have caused kids and adults alike to feel isolated and stressed.
For kids who struggle with social skills and emotional wellbeing, separation from peers comes at a high social-emotional price. Caroline Maguire, an expert in ADHD and Social Emotional Learning (SEL), explains that social distancing has caused kids with high social anxiety or difficulty developing and maintaining relationships “to lose valuable opportunities to practice social skills and to make and keep friends.”
While some schools are implementing SEL programs to support kids during remote learning, the task of helping kids strengthen SEL skills has fallen primarily to parents. Maguire believes that parents can make good use of this socially distanced time to improve relationships with their kids, help them gain confidence and overcome social resistance, and give them a toolkit for building social emotional connections when they return to school.
The Loneliness of the New Normal
Loneliness is on the rise, and you’d like your kid to reach out, connect with peers, and be social at least twice a day, but she is reluctant. Maguire suggests you “try to understand what it’s like for kids who struggle socially to live every day in a social crisis.”
Most kids with ADHD resist social engagement because they have a limited social network. With virtual and hybrid learning, that network has become even smaller. Your child may have had few committed friends before the pandemic, but now she also lacks “friends by proximity”— those acquaintances she sat next to in class or counted on seeing at lunch and recess.
ADHD traits regularly make it hard for kids to master all the skills necessary to develop and sustain significant social emotional connections. They often rush into friendships or exhaust potential friends by over-sharing, interrupting, or focusing solely on themselves. “Think about your child,” suggests Maguire. “What is getting in the way of her having deeper relationships?”
Following are some of Maguire’s suggestions for getting your kid on board with forging social connections:
- Identify your child’s story and mindset. Many kids resist reaching out to others because their attitude and skill set don’t serve them well socially. Your child might say she doesn’t want to join groups or is fine the way she is. But you hear her overreacting while playing games online with potential friends and worry that lagging social skills and emotional control will cause her to isolate herself even further.
- Shore up your relationship with your child. “Don’t jump into skill-building,” says Maguire. First, pave the way for your child to be willing to work with you to shift her mindset. Improve your understanding of her social world and your social role. Do fun things together that aren’t about academics or “lightning rod topics”; work on effective communication so she feels heard and supported; share your own struggles. If she feels you’re her partner in building social behaviors, she’ll be more open to listening to your suggestions.
- Help your child develop a positive self-image. Talk to your child about her perception of herself and what kind of image she would like to have. Encourage her to observe the social norms of her online groups and the abilities of the kids in them. Ask “What’s going on in this group?” “What are other kids like?” “Who has an image you admire?”
- Bring back family dinners. Being together will allow you to role-play and give your child time to practice social skills in a safe environment outside the virtual world. Your child might need to work on listening intently; reading social cues and body language; or specific conversational skills, such as chitchatting easily, giving more than one-word answers, telling a tightly organized story, or fleshing out details. For example, if your child struggles with small talk, start a game with, “Hi, how are you?” and have everyone at the table add a thought to build a bigger conversation. Practice focusing on details by having your kids describe the specifics of each student in their zoom classes. To help them better understand social cues, body language, and facial expressions, use prompts, such as, “What facial expressions do you notice tonight?” “What am I thinking/feeling right now?”
For many kids with LD and ADHD social-skill deficits come with the territory. But Covid-19 and social distancing have made existing challenges even more apparent. Working on these skills now can help your child weather the situation today and prepare her for healthier relationships once the pandemic is behind us.
This article is based on an ADDitude expert webinar, Social Emotional Learning for Children with ADHD in Quarantine, by Caroline Maguire, PCC, M.Ed., ACCG. Maguire is the founder and facilitator of a comprehensive SEL training methodology (#ConnectionsMatter), and the author of Why Will No One Play With Me? Eve Kessler, Esq., a former criminal appellate attorney, is Executive Director of SPED*NET Wilton (CT), and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.