Friendship Characteristics of Children with ADHD
A consistent finding in studies that identify children at risk for negative
developmental outcomes is that peer relationship difficulties predict a number
of subsequent problems.
Unfortunately, many children with ADHD struggle in their relations with peers
and in establishing and maintaining high quality and supportive friendships.
This is problematic because good friendships serve a number of important
functions for children including providing companionship, enabling feelings
of self-validation, contributing to emotional security, creating a context
for self-disclosure, offering guidance and support, and serving as a reliable
ally. Children whose development occurs in the absence of supportive
friendships miss out on these important supports, and may experience a greater
number of adjustment difficulties as a result.
Despite the documented importance of healthy friendships for children's positive
development, and the difficulty in peer relations experienced by many children
with ADHD, important questions about the friendship characteristics in children
with ADHD remain unanswered. I was thus pleased to come across a recently
published study in the Journal of Attention Disorders
(2012). Friendship characteristics of children with ADHD. Journal of Attention
Disorders. DOI: 10. 1177/1087054712458971
] that provides new information
on this important issue.
Participants were 92 9 to 12 year old children - 50 with ADHD and 42 comparison
children - their parents, and their teachers. Sixty-six of the participants
were boys and 26 were girls; the percentage of boys and girls were similar
among ADHD and comparison groups was similar.
Children were interviewed individually and asked to identify all their 'best
friends' in and out of school, to indicate how long they had been friends
with each child they identified, how often they spoke with each child on
the phone, and how frequently they spent time with each child outside of
school. Parents and teachers were asked a parallel series of questions;
this enabled the researchers to learn whether the 'best friends' that participants
identified were corroborated by another source. Parents and teachers
were also asked whether the friends they identified had learning or behavioral
problems so that these characteristics could be compared between children
with and without ADHD.
Key findings from this study are shown below.
- The number of 'best friends' reported by children with and without
ADHD did not differ.
- The number of 'best friends' that were corroborated by parents or teachers
were fewer for children with ADHD than for comparison children. On
average, children with ADHD had 3 corroborated friends compared to 4 such
friends for comparison children.
- Among boys, those with ADHD had a substantially higher percentage of
friends with learning or behavior problems relative to comparison children
(43% vs. 16%). No such differences were found among females.
- The average length of corroborated friendships was significantly shorter
for children with ADHD than for comparison children - about 10 months less
based on child report and 14 months less based on parent report.
Summary and Implications
- Although the amount of telephone contact with best friends was similar
in both groups, children with ADHD had significantly less direct contact
with friends outside of school. This was found for both child and parent
Although children with ADHD did not report fewer friends than other children,
they may have overestimated their friends based on the fact that their parents
and teachers corroborated fewer of their friendships. Even so, however,
it is positive to note that the they only had one fewer friend on average
than other children and that nearly all had corroborated friends. In
fact, in this sample, only 3 of the 50 children with ADHD were without such
Other aspects of the data were also noteworthy. First, among boys,
a significantly higher percentage of the friends of children with ADHD had
learning and/or behavior problems according to parents and teachers.
This is not necessarily negative but does indicate that boys with ADHD are
more likely to have friends who are struggling in some important ways.
Having friends with significant behavior problems may promote or exacerbate
negative behavior among boys with ADHD and children may mutually reinforce
these tendencies in one another. This is an important issue to be aware
It was also noteworthy that friendships among children with ADHD were of
shorter duration than for other children by about a year. For children
in this age range, this is substantial and may reflect greater turnover in
the friendships of children with ADHD. It is concerning because "...an
additional year of friendships can contribute to more warmth, closeness,
companionship, and better school adjustment among friends." This would
be an important issue to examine more carefully in subsequent research.
It would also be interesting to learn whether this tendency towards shorter
duration friendships in children with ADHD is also found among adolescents.
Children with ADHD were also found to have less contact with their friends
outside of school. This may occur for a variety of reasons. Because
of their challenging behavior, children with ADHD may require more supervision
and thus be less likely to be invited to friends' houses. Parents may
be more concerned about their child's behavior when they cannot monitor them,
and thus be more reluctant to permit 'play dates' away from home.
Regardless of the reason for this finding, lower levels of direct contact
suggests that friendships among children with ADHD may provide less companionship
and offer fewer opportunities to develop the kind of closeness between friends
that encourages self-disclosure and the provision of emotional support.
This is another issue to look at more carefully in subsequent research.
It is important to note that the findings discussed above reflect differences
found on average between children with and without ADHD and the conclusions
do not apply to all children with ADHD, many of whom can do very well in
their social relationships. As with any study, it would be important
to replicate these findings in a new sample in order to better establish
the reliability of the results.
When children with ADHD are struggling in their peer relationships, it is
important to know that their are some promising approaches for helping them.
One particularly interesting approaches involves having parents take on the
role of 'friendship coaches' for their child, which is based on the notion
that is based on the notion that parents can play an important role in creating
social opportunities for their child by arranging play dates for them and
by 'coaching' their child so that those play dates go well.
I reviewed a study of this approach in a prior issue of Attention Research
Update and I would encourage you to take a look at it. You can find
the article at http://www.helpforadd.com/2010/november.htm