For much of my professional life I have been involved in work within several different school districts, as well as a large private school, both in teaching and counseling roles. Without question, the most notable trend over that 15 years or so has been the emergence of ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Oppositional Defiance Disorder, and several other afflictions within students in our schools. You will not easily find a classroom without one or more students who have been identified as facing one of these disorders, and potentially have formalized supports in place to help them deal with the effects. These are important, and I am greatly encouraged to see funding and public awareness of them increase steadily over time, rather than being marginalized or even forgotten.
At the same time, and especially over my past few years in a counseling capacity, a concurrent reality has also appeared, however. The complexity of these and other disorders almost invariably includes a significant deficit in at least one of two main needs: belonging and independence. Of these, an unmet need to connect in meaningful ways with peers and parents has proven the most common in my own practice. While physicians have an important role to play in discussing and identifying possible medications and other solutions for young people facing ADHD, for example, I believe it is equally important to address the natural need to connect and belong as well. When this need is not considered, there are very few children and teens with ADHD that I am aware of who have been able to find significantly improved levels of emotional health, especially by way of seeking diagnosis and receiving medication-based treatment.
To put it simply, kids need friends. They really, really need friends who matter to them, and especially those of similar age. When they do, kids have a good chance of feeling part of a community, and that they matter and have value to others. This is massively important for the emotional health of a growing young mind, and helps to build and solidify self-esteem in ways not easily achievable through other means, including testing and medications. On the other hand, when kids feel disconnected or rejected (real or perceived) by their peers, the consequences can be crushing and far-reaching. Feelings of intense anger or anxiety can arise, and can be triggered by completely unrelated events such as a simple disagreement with a sibling. An otherwise happy child can rapidly become defiant, unable to focus in class or upon a task at home, or become an overall difficult person to get along with.
Now, to be clear I am not prepared to suggest that any single or combination of unmet needs are an actual cause for afflictions like ADHD. I will leave the mysteries of causation to those conducting scientific studies. What I will suggest however is that a lack of meaningful connection with peers and parents is very likely to heighten and amplify the difficulties provided by ADHD and other disorders. Never should we fall into a belief that a child struggling with one of them will find complete healthy functioning without consideration of the need for connection; additionally, we should be aware that a quick-fix at no cost is essentially non-existent.
What can you do as parents to help? Continue seeking out all the supports you already have, and involve as many invested individuals, including professionals, as seems appropriate. In addition, there are several everyday steps you can take that will help your child to deepen his or her ability and willingness to create new friendships. A fabulous article put out by the University of Florida I came across gives you clear, easy-to-implement ideas on how you can make a real difference in this specific, important way for a young person. It contains an important reminder: kids are not born with social skills – we need to teach but also encourage opportunities for them to gain these needed skills. If we do so, it is much more likely our kids will want to go outside, meet up with others, and regard their school experience as a positive one overall.