Helping Kids with ADHD Follow Safe Playdate Guidelines as Social Distancing Rules Relax

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

As social distancing rules become more relaxed, parents are faced with tough decisions about when and how to allow their child to have safe playdates with friends. Current advice from public health and medical professionals about the safety of playdates has been inconsistent, with some experts saying it’s too early in the COVID-19 crisis to start having playdates, and others suggesting that limited playdates with one or two friends could be relatively safe if precautions are taken. Deciding what is best for your child can be difficult and requires weighing the risks of contracting and spreading the virus, as well as your child’s mental health and social needs.

If you decide that it is time for your child to resume in-person playdates, experts recommend taking precautions, including playing outside, avoiding contact sports and games, wearing masks, and keeping kids a few feet apart while they play. These precautions will be difficult for many kids to follow. For kids with ADHD, following these precautions will be even more difficult because of their tendency to be forgetful and impulsive. Fortunately, there are things you can do to help your child follow safe playdate guidelines while they are enjoying their time with friends.

  • Clearly explain the rules before the playdate begins. Write the rules down and be specific. For example, if your child needs to wear a mask, then let them know that the mask must cover their nose and mouth during the entire playdate. If you expect your child to wash their hands before and after the playdate, also include that they need to wash them for a full 20 seconds each time. Being specific will clarify your expectations and will minimize arguments and negotiations.
  • Keep playdates short. Set your child up for success by keeping playdates short – at least initially. Younger kids can get a lot out of a 30-minute playdate. Older kids many need a full hour to feel like they had enough quality time with a friend.
  • Plan activities that make it easy to follow social distancing rules. If you want your child to avoid getting too close to their playmate, then contact games like basketball, soccer, or tag aren’t a great fit. Instead, plan activities like bike riding, drawing with chalk on the sidewalk or driveway, water balloon or water gun games, or scavenger hunts where kids can play together but still stay a safe distance apart.
  • Provide rewards and consequences. Kids with ADHD do best when there are clear rewards and consequences tied to the new rules. In this case, the easiest and most logical reward for following the rules will be the opportunity for another playdate in the future. In terms of consequences, you can choose to end the playdate early if your child isn’t following the rules. Alternatively, you can allow the playdate to finish but not allow your child to schedule another playdate for a certain period of time. Avoid banning all future playdates, since this consequence will be very difficult for you to enforce and won’t be in your child’s best interest long-term.
  • Don’t require perfection. Sticking to new playdate rules will be hard for your child, and it’s going to take some practice. So, don’t expect them to follow the rules perfectly right from the start. Instead, let them know that you expect them to follow the rules with three or fewer reminders from you during the entire playdate. As they get better at following the rules, you can reduce the number of reminders during future playdates. Remind your child of the rewards and consequences before the playdate begins.
  • Monitor the playdate and praise your child. Monitor your child throughout the playdate and praise them (directly or subtly) when you see them following the rules.

Debrief after the playdate. Talk to your child about how things went after the playdate. Keep things positive and emphasize the things that your child did well. If there are a few things they need to work on for next time, mention them but don’t dwell on them right now. Playdates should be fun, and your child’s experience should end on a high note!



Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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