Many moons ago, when I started my career with children, ADHD and ASD were two words we rarely heard. In fact, when I started my career in early years 24 years ago, most frequently, children were just described as ‘fidgety’ ‘having ants in their pants’ or in worst cases, described as being ‘naughty’.
Whilst we have learnt a lot about neurodiversity over the years, frequently, in my work as a therapist and coach, I come into contact with multiple children who have sat under the radar for ADHD who should have been diagnosed.
The greatest issue that is discussed, for both children and adults, surrounds friendships, so why are they often so challenging?
When someone has ADHD they often use visual cues in the environment to remind them of things. This is the same situation with friends.
We can often observe young people (and adults) with ADHD build intense connections with a friend, and a few weeks or months or even years later just vanish from their world and do the same with someone else.
Many will discuss that the ADHD brain needs excitement and stimulation, which are fundamentally true, however, the other aspect of this is person blindness.
Those with ADHD pay attention to the thing that they have in front of them. If they have a friend who pays them attention, they will focus their attention on this person.
In this moment, the person with ADHD will forget the people in their wider circle who they do not see as frequently.
We all have circles of friends. those we see often, those we see sparingly and those we see irregularly, each of those friends holds meaning in our lives and matters to us. Even as a neurotypical individual we can be responsible for not staying in regular contact with our friends, becoming lazy or just being busy and having intentions but not following through.
For the individual with ADHD, their attention is captivated by the friends in their immediate vicinity and those who are out of sight are filed further back in the minds.
The struggle with this is twofold.
Their friends can feel that they are always trying and step back, hoping to jolt the ADHD friend into action, which does not happen and they feel hurt and rejected.
Their friends may also feel hurt that their ADHD friend never has time for them, but is making time with their other friends which can impact the quality of the interactions.
Equally, the individual with ADHD cares about their other friends and does not realise their person blindness is impacting their interactions.
As well as the person with ADHD experiencing rejection sensitivity which impacts their own self-esteem and leads them to feel that they are rejected.
We can quickly see how this can have an impact on social relationships.
This can often escalate where romantic relationships are involved. After all, who hasn’t forgotten their friends when they feel in love? It’s a difficult balance.
What about communication?
The other aspects of this person blindness, and the need for visual cues comes from text messages and interactions.
When we receive an electronic communication, we are offered an alert, a reminder. When someone with ADHD receives this, if they open the message and are busy, distracted or caught up in something, they can often close them and forget to reply.
No big issue? We have all done that, haven’t we?
The challenge comes, where the individual with ADHD now no longer has a reminder. Once the message is open, the reminder vanishes. This can often mean that messages go unanswered for days, weeks or even longer. The individual with ADHD, annoyed that people are not getting in touch may even raise with their friend why they are not communicating, to then scroll up and find that they never replied.
The friend, who may not even understand that this is the case, in return may step back from the friendship and not follow up, annoyed that they are not being respected or replied to.
Further, when the person with ADHD avoids messages, they may find that they do not reply to them at all, and end up with a phone full of messages all sat unread. This then creates overwhelm, and they will procrastinate about getting them done. Think of that feeling when your inbox is full of emails, and magnify it. They are more likely to delete them, or close their phone to manage it.
We can so quickly identify why this can cause social difficulties, as the interactions are impacted on both sides of the friendship.
When we teach social relationships, even at a young age, we advocate sharing, dual effort and interactions. When this doesn’t happen, those without ADHD begin to lose sight of a value in a friendship and feel rejected or unconsidered, especially if their messages go unopened and their friend is with others, on social media or sharing what they have done.
The person with ADHD can equally feel rejected and not understand, as their different way of thinking, to them is not an issue as it is their normal.
So, how do we help?
Help falls on both sides, both parties can support each other:
For neurotypical friends consider
- Following up a text to check if their friend received it to offer a new visual cue
- Sending invitations on paper or electronically that send reminders to support the plans
- Stepping back and checking in to make sure that they have their friend’s attention before making plans
- Make one plan at a time so friends can action them individually and prevent overwhelm
For those with ADHD consider:
- Not opening messages unless you have time to respond
- To make a note or alert on your phone to go back and respond to a friend if you do not have time
- To make a list of friends you want to stay in touch with to help plan who to stay in touch with (thus creating a visual cue)
For me personally, I think that therefore diagnosis is important, with a diagnosis and understanding, it is easier to explain these details to friends and prevent misunderstanding on both sides. Rather than viewing it as making excuses, it allows to take steps to improve our understanding of ourselves, as well as help others support us.
It makes you wonder how many young people and adults, have lost friends because of ill perceived and misunderstood person blindness?
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