July Lab of the Month: Dr. Amori Mikami’s lab offers a new perspective on kids’ peer relationships

It takes a village: a community approach to building friendships in kids

Think back to when you were a kid. It wasn’t easy navigating the choppy waters of school, friends, birthday party invitations, and social dynamics. Now imagine adding a neurodevelopmental condition, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), to the mix. For children with ADHD, symptoms like impulsivity, inattention, and hyperactivity often make it difficult to make – and keep – friends. Friendship is an important part of our social and emotional development; not having any can seriously impact a child’s mental health and academic performance.

Dr. Amori Mikami, an associate professor and clinical psychologist at UBC, believes that together, a child’s parents, teachers, and classmates can make a difference in helping kids with ADHD build friendships. Mikami and the Peer Relationships in Childhood Lab are using a community-minded approach to help children and adolescents with peer problems. The lab explores how children relate to one another and the effects of peer relationships

School can be a lonely and isolating place for kids with ADHD. Their peers think they are annoying or they won’t play and work with them,” says Mikami, director of the Peer Relationships in Childhood Lab. It compounds and increases the risk of depression and anxiety–or unhealthy behaviours, such as substance abuse or falling in with the wrong crowd.”

To encourage inclusivity, the lab has developed new psychosocial interventions to help kids build friendships, especially kids with ADHD. The interventions include regular group sessions where parents of kids with ADHD support one another to discuss strategies on how to help their child make and keep friends. To improve understanding of children with ADHD, parents are coached on the social problems that their child might be experiencing. Parents also talk about ways to help other families to reduce stigma about ADHD and to view children with ADHD more positively.

This type of support specific to friendship issues is unprecedented; many BC families who have children with ADHD don’t receive this type of assistance through the public system. Dr. Kristen Hudec, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab who has been facilitating the parent groups, says bringing families together helps them feel less alone and it demystifies misconceptions that families may have about ADHD.

“In our groups, parents benefit from connecting with others who have similar experiences,” says Hudec. “Parents of older children are able to share and relate their experiences with the parents of the younger children who are new to this. It gives them hope, ideas, and ultimately, help with their children.”

Mikami’s pilot studies show that the lab’s interventions are working; peers are changing their perceptions of children with ADHD and becoming friendlier. To broaden out, the lab is taking their research and interventions into the classroom. They are training elementary school teachers in Burnaby and Coquitlam to help peers be more socially accepting of classmates with ADHD, behaviour problems, or who are different in other ways.

By targeting the classroom, Mikami is facilitating better relationships and inclusivity at school—through the teachers. The researchers observe the children interacting with their parents, friends, classmates, and teachers in a series of visits. This gives the researchers a rich perspective of the social dynamic and relationships taking place within the child’s system. Mikami’s hope is that these approaches will increase the arsenal of tools for tackling peer problems among children with ADHD.

People assume kids with ADHD have peer problems because the child has behaviour problems or social skills deficits,” says Mikami. “But that’s only half of the story. We need to work with peer groups and help them become more welcoming and inclusive.”

As a child who moved frequently, Mikami was naturally driven to explore childhood relationships. Being the new student at many schools gave her a unique awareness of the different social constructs in each school. This led to an interest in psychology and a drive to solve peer problems.

Some peer groups were more welcoming and others not so much, said Mikami. I was an early anthropologist and studied how each school was a different community or culture. I was curious to know if a certain child was in a different school or neighbourhood, how their peers might respond differently.”

Mikami see kids with ADHD as just one example of children who may have trouble fitting in with peers. She hopes her research will lay the groundwork for children to be more empathetic, inclusive and welcoming toward others who are different, not just kids with ADHD.

Below is a sample of some research projects underway in the lab.

Jennifer Na, a PhD student, is researching how to reduce the stigma of mental illness. Her MA thesis found that children enter novel situations with pre-existing perceptions of ADHD, which then influence their liking of a real-life, newly acquainted peers with ADHD.

Kristen Hudec, postdoctoral fellow, is interested in the neuropsychological functioning in individuals with ADHD and how it relates to social interactions as well as parenting and family relationships. Her research aims to improve our understanding of ADHD and to identify potential targets for social and behavioural interventions.

Sophie Smit, MA student, is looking at whether parental ADHD and depression are uniquely associated with various parenting behaviours. She is interested in parent-child interactions and is using both parental reports of behaviour and observations of parent-child interactions that occur in the lab in her research. 

Mary Jia, PhD student, researches the resiliency against social problems in children with ADHD, looking at factors within the child, parent social competence, and teacher-student relationship quality.

Adri Khalis,  MA student, is researching the associations between the online and offline social functioning of emerging adult university students and how these associations maybe influenced by psychopathology. He is interested in how we can integrate the use of existing communication technologies in social interventions for youth with ADHD.

The lab’s research team also includes 35 research assistants who work across several behavioural coding teams and projects. Meet the lab members and alumni.