Discover how this condition can show itself in a friendship, and essential tips for being there for your friend
With the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) estimating that there are two million adults living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the UK, the chances are you know someone with the condition – they may even be a close friend. All friendships experience highs and lows, but being friends with someone with ADHD may present its own set of unique situations, both good and challenging.
If someone is neurodivergent, the way they act and communicate may differ from what a neurotypical person expects from a friendship. Of course, ADHD presents differently in different people, but understanding what typically makes the ADHD mind tick can help you navigate the most likely scenarios in your unique friendship, minimising friction and strengthening your bond along the way.
Don’t make assumptions based on attention
“When it comes to friendships, we often make assumptions about our importance to that person based on how prioritised and seen they make us feel,” explains Dr Marianne Trent, a clinical psychologist and author. “But when it comes to people with ADHD, they may care deeply for you, but their impulsivity, inattentiveness, and even any associated mood disorders, get in the way of them being able to portray what you deem as ‘good’ friend behaviour.”
Instead of seeking reassurance, focus on understanding their challenges and being a good friend yourself. “Being open and honest about what you’ve observed, and adopting a non-judgemental, compassion-filled approach can be key,” she adds.
‘Ghosting’ may not be intentional
The email, WhatsApp, or DM, read but not replied to – it’s a bugbear, often leaving the sender (at best) frustrated and (at worst) feeling like they’ve been dropped into a friendship black hole. But for someone with ADHD, maintaining timely replies to messages is not always simple.
“It’s helpful to bear in mind that the primacy and recency effects of memory can be even more acute with someone with ADHD. This might mean that they get distracted and forget things more often than is ideal,” explains Dr Trent. “It’s OK to follow up if you’ve not heard back – it might be a case of busy life, busy mind, and a distraction cropped up before they had a chance to reply to you.”
But be considerate – they may be experiencing feelings of overwhelm, and numerous chase-up messages won’t help.
Forgetting important dates doesn’t mean they don’t care
Friends make time for each other, right? But if your friend with ADHD completely forgot about your plan to meet for drinks, or that it’s your birthday tomorrow, it can feel like they don’t value you.
Dr Jenna Vyas-Lee, clinical psychologist and co-founder of Kove mental health services, explains that, with ADHD, it can be a struggle to keep track of time. “Understand ADHD as a hungry, under-stimulated brain – it’s naturally looking to ‘feed’ itself, flitting from thing to thing, trying to fill itself up. Therefore, it makes sense that it’s often hard to remember birthdays, and be oriented to time.”
Dr Vyas-Lee recommends sending non-judgmental reminders, while keeping it light. “If it feels personal and hurtful, then openly discussing the issues together, and working out a way that fits both friends, will help everyone feel heard,” she adds.
Understand when your behaviour could be hurtful
You may have turned down an invitation, unintentionally blanked them, or ‘helpfully’ given some honest feedback – so why are they so hurt? It could be down to emotional dysregulation.
Dr Trent explains: “It’s worth being aware of ‘rejection sensitive dysphoria’ (RSD) that some people with ADHD might have. This means that anything communicated to your friend which appears critical or negative could be reacted to in what might feel like a disproportionate manner.
“Being aware of this allows you to consider how, and when, you offer feedback. For example, you could chat in advance if you know you’re not going to be able to spend time with them at a party because of other commitments.”
Embrace the positives
A little understanding goes a long way to ensuring those, once jarring, behaviours don’t sink your friendship. Now you can focus on why you both became friends in the first place.
“Most people with ADHD are seen as the ‘fun’ friends,” says Dr Vyas-Lee. “They can be incredibly sociable and creative, and people are drawn to them. They make excellent friends because they are often deeply caring and affectionate.”
Perhaps more than a fair pay-off for the occasional forgotten text.