ADHD Kids May Need Help in Recognizing Emotions in Others

Posted June 16, 2008 by

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Have you ever been in a situation in public where your ADHD child continues to annoy others (or you) with their inappropriate behavior, even though you’ve given them every cue that they should stop? A recent study* conducted by The University of Western Australia found that ADHD boys had a hard time correctly identifying the emotions of facial expressions in drawings they were shown.

So if you’re the parent of an ADHD kid, be aware of the fact that your child might not be picking up on a lot of non-verbal cues that most of us take for granted. He or she could be reading something entirely different into a facial expression–or perhaps not reading anything into it at all! One way to tackle this problem with your child is by using drawings and photos of people or characters. Ask your child what emotion the person is displaying in the photo, and talk about it together. This can be done while reading a picture book or magazine, or looking through a family photo album. Point out the expressions of the people you see, and ask your child how you think that person is feeling. There are other resources for this activity as well. For example, the website has a game in its “Arthur” section that gives younger kids points for correctly identifying what emotion a character from the show is feeling.

When I developed the Total Focus program, I made sure to provide materials to help kids learn how to properly identify facial expressions as part of the “Social Skills” module. The good news for parents is, Your ADHD child can be taught to properly interpret facial expressions–one of the first steps to stopping inappropriate behavior.


Dr Robert Myers is a child psychologist with more than 25 years of experience working with children and adolescents with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and learning disabilities and is the creator of the Total Focus Program. Dr Myers is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at UC Irvine School of Medicine. "Dr Bob" has provided practical information for parents as a radio talk show host and as editor of Child Development Institute's website, which reaches 3 million parents each year. Dr. Myers earned his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.

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  1. D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor (Edit) Report

    To “Jennifer”: Thank you for writing into us. It can be difficult to watch your child struggle with peer relationships. I can hear how much you want to help your daughter through this challenge. As much as you may want to step in and take care of the situation for your daughter, it’s probably going to be more effective to work with her on developing problem solving and coping skills to deal with this situation on her own. Even as an adult, your daughter is probably going to have to interact or deal with people who may not be kind to her. By helping her develop good problem-solving skills now, you will be giving her tools to effectively deal with similar situations her entire life. There are many great articles on Empowering Parents that can give you some ideas on how to have these types of conversations with her. Here are a few you may find useful: Is Your Child Being Bullied? 9 Steps You Can Take as a Parent, Girl Fighting and Your Child and Low Self-Esteem in Kids, Part I: Forget What You’ve Heard—It’s a Myth. We hope this information is useful for you and wish you and your daughter the best as you address this challenge. Take care.

  2. Jennifer (Edit) Report


    My twelve year old child is being treated with disrespect at school. A few girls asked her if she wanted to be part of their group. She happily agreed, however, the following day they told her they didn’t want her to be part of the group. Then, the leader of this group told her she was ugly. She isn’t ugly, she is a beautiful girl, of course, Mother’s are slightly biased! Anyhow, she has become despondent since this occurred and it is obvious that she is depressed. Help, I feel for her but don’t know what to do. I spoke to the Mother of this child, who is obviously bullying her, but it only seemed to make things worse.

  3. Laure (Edit) Report

    I have a 12 year old son who often doesn’t pick up on social cues. I find that it’s really important for me to talk to him as soon as we are alone again. And never miss that opportunity because the behavior will escalate so easily. Almost every time, he had no clue that he said anything inappropriate (at first), but understands when I point it out. One thing that he understands is: It’s not wrong to annoy someone (unintentionally), but once you KNOW that you are annoying them, then you must stop.

  4. Marissa (Edit) Report

    You bring up a good point about “perspective taking” that is reading the emotions of others or a social situation. This deficit can also be a sign of a mild autistic spectrum disorder. My son had a mild autistic spectrum disorder and has progressed so much over the years that he is left mainly with the ADHD characteristics. When diagnosing your child, ADHD may an easily pill to swallow at first but it’s important to look at all the issues to ensure the right diagnosis and more importantly the right treatment/therapies.

  5. Cindy (Edit) Report

    I have a 15 yr old that i have been struggling with the last year, horribly!!! Before that it seemed like we were doing OK not great but OK.Do you have any solid critical advice for older children that think they know it all, don’t mind anything, do whatever they want because”you can’t stop me, touch me or make me”. I am constantily bribing, begging, demanding, and promising, sometimes threatening.I have done it all and it just doesn’t seem to get easier.We have been to 2 phychiatrist(sp)councelors also.I am at my wits end. He he also daoing terrible in school this year and he normally has good grades!! Can you help us?

  6. Tracy (Edit) Report

    My son is currently being tested for ADHD. I am not sure if he is too young to be diagnosed. He is 5 and has just started kindergarten. His behavior, concentration and energy level is much less than ideal, but my biggest concern is his inability to get along with other children his age. He is an “up in your face” “touchy” kid. His biggest problems are keeping his hands and feet to himself and inappropriate reactions to social situations. Many children get very annoyed with him, so he mostly plays by himself or draws. When he tries to play with the other kids, he tells me that he doesn’t have friends and everyone fights him. His teacher has also displayed concern (and his daycare teacher had the same concern). Any advice?

  7. Jinx (Edit) Report

    Oh My Goodness! I am (severe) ADHD. This is why I understand my three severely AHDH children so well (there could be a fourth one the horizon but the jury is still out on him…he’s too young to be formally diagnosed. My youngest is the only one of the four that belongs to my current husband…and, not only is he not ADHD, his only gear is…reverse. He is horrified at the prospect of having had an ADHD child. The blended family that we have right now is nearly sucking the life out of me, because the kids and I are constant defending ourselves and apologizing for our behaviour (such as…not identifying when my husband is upset or aggravated…just as you mention in this article). I need a Total Transformation program for him! Because I am afraid that he will not bond with or understand the son that we have together. We are already tiptoe on eggshells around him. Our “loudness” and extreme “busy” mode has literally caused him to have anxiety issues!!! It’s becoming miserable…sigh.

  8. Denise/Brandon-son (Edit) Report

    All your articles are very true i have been doing a lot of them in the past and even now. It does not work as well as you make it sound. i have a 16 yr old that i have been struggling with the last 3 years bad, before that it seemed like we were getting some where,wrong. do you have any solid critical advice for older children that think they know it all, can and do do it all or when, whatever they want because”you can’t stop me, touch me make me”, i am always bribing begging demanding, and promising, sometimes threatening, i have done it all and it just doesn’t seem to get easier. i always think he is almost 18, but so what does that mean i want to help him and fix him, not dump him. We have been to councelors also. Can you help us?

  9. Joan (Edit) Report

    So true, turns out in addition to ADHD my 10 year old was diagnosed a year ago as being on the autistic spectrum as well. Can’t figure out facial expressions, social cues.
    We’ve been saying “my face is here, look at me when you (I) talk since he was a toddler!

  10. AUXI (Edit) Report

    I have noticed this pattern. I have gone with a mirror and pictures to shown them but it doesn’t make much of a difference in my kids.

  11. Jerri (Edit) Report

    This explains why my son’s behavior doesn’t stop even when I give him the evil eye. I’m going to try working with him on it. Thanks!



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