By Beth Levine
People with ADHD often have difficulty keeping friends. As a result, they may have a heightened fear of rejection. In fact, a study published in 2017 in the journal Sage Open found that people with ADHD are often beset with low self-esteem, and feel ashamed or embarrassed by their symptoms. This may keep them from taking risks and reaching out to others.
However, being a friend to someone with ADHD can be difficult, too. They may often be late or talk too much. They don’t listen to you; they flake off. How do you strike that happy balance of supporting a struggling friend without having your own needs trampled on? If you care about someone with ADHD, you can help them be the best version of themselves while also establishing boundaries for yourself.
Here are some tips for connecting with your ADHD friend:
Since time immemorial, people with ADHD have been accused of making it up because “there really is no condition called ADHD.” The uninformed belief: They are just lazy, dumb or don’t care.
Nothing could be farther from the truth, says Ryan S. Sultán, MD, a mental health physician, a research professor at Columbia University and director of Integrative Psych, a New York City clinic that specializes in ADHD.
Sultán has ADHD himself.
“By learning about the condition, you’ll be able to understand a person’s personality and challenges much more,” he says. “I have had people that have known me for a while tell me, when they found out I have ADHD, that suddenly some of my behaviors made more sense to them. The behaviors in adults look different than from children’s so it’s not as obvious to people that that it may be ADHD.”
If a friend had a broken foot, you wouldn’t get angry because they couldn’t walk faster, would you? Your friend doesn’t want to let you down, even though it may seem they are just being thoughtless. Their brain just works in a different way.
As former First Lady Michelle Obama wrote in her autobiography Becoming: “Friendships between women, as any woman will tell you, are built of a thousand small kindnesses… swapped back and forth and over again.” When you show empathy, you are more apt receive it in return.
Encourage but Don’t Enable
You are a friend, not your friend’s parent.
“This is just being a good friend in general,” says Dr. Sultán. “How do you help support your friend be the best version of themselves, while encouraging them to take some ownership for some of it? You want to find the balance between setting a realistic expectation but also not being so enabling in that you’re not even encouraging them to grow.”
So … don’t: Call them every ten minutes to remind them of an appointment.
But do: Help them find ways to help themselves with visual and audio reminders.
Remind Them of Their Strengths
People with ADHD hear so many negative comments about themselves. Make sure you accentuate the positive.
“Things like their creativity or their natural ability to think outside the box and come up with innovative ideas can be tremendous assets,” says Amira Martin, a licensed clinical social worker, communication expert, psychotherapist and wellness professional. “They often possess a creative and unique perspective that can lead to original solutions and engaging art. Let them know the ways that they have shined.”
If you are forever waiting and waiting for your friend to show up, or if they tend to let you down on promises they’ve made … well, you are a person. too, and you are not doing them any favors if you don’t let them know how their actions affect you.
Don’t attack or criticize. Just calmly say: “I really like you and enjoy our time together. You are a lot of fun. But when you leave me hanging, I feel like you don’t value or respect me.” Or: “When you talk all the time, I feel like you don’t want to hear what I have to say. Sometimes I’d like to talk about what interests me as well.”
Then set simple boundaries such as: “If you aren’t here within 15 minutes of when you say you will be, I am leaving.” Or: “If I feel as if you are hijacking the conversation, how about I hold up one finger to indicate that I have something to say?”
Don’t Take Things Personally
People with ADHD don’t want to let you down, or ignore your needs. Their neurodiversity is not about you.
“That’s where educating yourself about their disorder comes into play again,” Martin says. “Because when you have a real understanding of how much can be going on for them at once, how distracted they can be, how heightened their emotions are, then it’s easier to say to yourself — when they flake or they’re repeatedly late: ‘It’s not about me.'”
And most of all…
Keep a Sense of Humor
Everyone has their quirks. Make a joke and move forward when you can.
“There’s obviously a reason why you really like this person, so try to concentrate on their positive qualities, and just roll with it if possible,” Dr. Sultán says.
Martin notes that it is well worth the effort. She says: “Their vibrant energy can create an uplifting atmosphere!”
Editor’s note: Check out our companion piece we published on July 10: “Making Friends When You Are an Adult with ADHD.“