How Executive Dysfunction Can Cause Trouble Making Friends
Children are expected to mature cognitively and emotionally as well as physically. Generally, as children grow older, their executive function skills like planning, organizing, strategizing and self-monitoring improve. But many children with learning disabilities (LD) and ADHD lag behind their peers in these skills.
Executive dysfunction can lead to a variety of problems with academics and behavior. Everyday tasks like sharing, taking turns, picking up on subtle social cues and staying attentive in class can be very difficult for kids who struggle with executive skills. And when children and teens falter in these basic social interactions, it can hurt them socially—isolating them from peers and making it difficult for them to make and keep friends.
Difficulties in the social realm can cause your child pain and embarrassment and are particularly painful to witness as a parent. Everyone needs to feel liked and accepted, and children and teens may react to social disappointments with feelings of isolation, helplessness, sadness and anger. The good news is that you can help your child handle the social challenges that can come along with executive dysfunction, just as you assist your child with academic difficulties.
What Is Social Competence?Children who are socially competent:
- Are aware of the importance of body language and nonverbal communication
- Have control of their emotions and impulses—they can “stop and think”
- Have the ability to think through a situation and recognize others’ points of view
- Show flexibility in the face of changed plans and unexpected situations
- Can anticipate what will happen as a result of their words or actions
- Are able to take responsibility for their behavior
Executive dysfunction can throw a wrench into all of these skills. For example, a child with weak working memory will likely struggle to think through a social situation before taking action. A teenager who has difficulty with self-monitoring may not be able to judge other’s reactions to his body language and voice volume and adjust what he’s doing accordingly. A middle schooler who struggles with thinking flexibly may become very upset when a plan or routine changes.
Why Can Social Life Be So Difficult For Kids With Executive Dysfunction?Research has shown that children and teens whose executive skills are underdeveloped are:
- More likely then their peers to behave in socially unacceptable ways (e.g. saying “the wrong thing at the wrong time,” running into things and people, talking rapidly and excessively, continuing to roughhouse after peers have stopped)
- Less able to solve interpersonal problems
- Less likely to consider the consequences of their behavior
- Less likely to understand nonverbal communication, such as facial expression and tone of voice, or to interpret what others say
- Less adaptable to new social situations
- Less able to tolerate frustration and failure
Many of these characteristics are so troublesome because they can lead to rejection from peers. Consider the following circumstances:
- Adam is 16 and has great difficulty controlling his impulses to call out at inappropriate times during class. He wants to make other kids laugh, but lately, they have been avoiding him. Some of his friends have noticed that they tend to get in trouble when they sit with Adam in class. Other kids think that Adam is very immature—the screaming and roughhousing might have been funny when they were younger, but now it just seems silly. Adam’s mom is concerned that he has many fewer friends than he did in middle school.
- Alana is a third grader who has trouble with working memory. She plays in a youth soccer league, and at a recent game, the ball was passed to her. She was very excited, but couldn’t quickly recall what she was supposed to do next. She just knew she was supposed to kick the ball into the net—but unfortunately, she kicked it into her own team’s net. The other girls on the team were mad that Alana inadvertently scored a point for the opposing team. “What’s wrong with you?” one girl yelled as Alana sadly walked off the field. After the game, Alana’s dad overheard a girl whispering that Alana is “weird” and “stupid.”
Adam and Alana both faced peer disapproval because of their actions caused by their executive dysfunction. They’re thought of as “weird” and avoided by other kids—an isolating and painful situation.
If your child faces similar obstacles, get tips on dealing with executive dysfunction-related social skills.
Bonnie Z. Goldsmith earned a doctorate in English from Ohio State University. She has worked in the field of education throughout her professional life, as a writer, editor and teacher. She lives in Minneapolis.