Social Emotional Needs

Lifelong struggles with attention, distraction, and/or impulsivity can negatively impact a person’s social and emotional well being and can interfere with learning.

The following are common social-emotional needs of individuals with ADHD and Learning Disabilities.

Low self esteem and fear of failure

It is very common for someone with ADHD or LD to have negative thoughts about themselves and their abilities. These thoughts can limit the learner’s willingness to try in learning situations. Negative reactions of others in response to ADHD symptoms and more frequent experiences of failure can lead to a “fear of failure” and an avoidance of new situations. We could call it ‘the little engine that can’t’ because learners are often saying to themselves “I know I can’t; I know I can’t”.

Learned helplessness

Individuals with ADHD and Learning Disabilities are more likely to find external reasons for both success and failure than their peers. When they experience success, they attribute it to luck or the teacher marking easily – they do not attribute success to their own efforts or ability. Repeated failure and these attributions often result in “learned helplessness” where the individual stops trying because they think that their efforts are useless. LD and ADHD students begin to doubt their own abilities, leading them to doubt that they can do anything to overcome their school difficulties.

Emotional sensitivity, anxious feelings

Individuals with ADHD and LD experience many fears and ongoing emotional stress. They often fear failure and fear being exposed – that is, they fear others finding out that they struggle to attend and learn. Many struggle financially, with employment and in relationships. This stress may lead to anxiety and depression and these emotions interfere with learning.


Sleep is very important for everyday functioning, and people who do not get enough sleep can demonstrate symptoms that are similar to people with ADHD. Lack of sleep can also make ADHD symptoms worse, so it is very important to set aside enough time for sleep every night.

Learn more at the Sleep Foundation

Emotional Regulation

Difficulty with emotional regulation is a central feature of children with ADHD. Deficits in executive functions make it much more difficult for individuals with ADHD to control their emotions and maintain appropriate self-regulation. Essentially, the person is reacting before he/she has a chance to hear all of the information presented, think through his/her choices, and develop alternate plans for behavior. This will have an impact on academic or work tasks, following rules, and managing social situations.

Behavioural impulsivity takes away from his/her ability to think about how to initiate tasks and carry out multi-step instructions, and will make task/goal-directed persistence and flexibility in managing tasks more difficult.

While not the cause of aggressive behaviours, it is likely that ADHD makes an individual vulnerable for coping with frustration through emotionally impulsive behaviours rather than calm problem solving.

Acting out

Another possible response is to ‘act out’ to avoid situations where they might feel embarrassed or to avoid admitting when they do not understand something because they do not want to feel ‘stupid’ or have others think they are ‘stupid’.

Social Skills

Social skills’ problems are just as, if not more, important than academic problems in the development of a child with ADHD or Learning Disabilities. Research suggests that adequate social functioning, including healthy peer relationships, plays a primary role in the optimal development of a child. But for many individuals with ADHD, their difficulties with inattention, impulse control and any learning disabilities also affect their ability to develop positive social skills.

Difficulties may show up as:

  • Difficulty taking turns in conversations, interrupting others
  • Making off topic comments
  • Misunderstanding information and reacting defensively
  • Difficulty understanding humour
  • Difficulty recognizing non-verbal cues, reading body language
  • Difficulty understanding personal space.

These challenges, along with difficulties related to disinhibition (i.e., difficulty to control oneself), preoccupations, rigid thinking, and regulating emotions also impact these children’s ability to make and maintain friendships.

Yet, there is hope. Social skills are not inherently acquired – they must be learned. Although most of us are able to pick such skills up implicitly, these children need to be taught explicitly what to do and when to do it! Children who receive social skills training can learn to modify their social skills and become socially competent adults. Children with better social skills tend to be better accepted by their peers, have better coping skills, and have better school and social adjustment.

Learn More at Social Thinking

Families, to find information about how to access social skills programs for your child, go to: Find Help – Social Skills Services