ADHD and your child’s self-esteem
Devon P.’s son was about 5 years old when he learned in 2018 that he had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). When he was in preschool, Devon says he exhibited many of the hallmark symptoms of ADHD, including endless energy, hyperactivity, inattention and impulsivity. He also had difficulties with learning.
But what caught Devon’s attention the most was when it came to his little boy’s self-esteem.
“He had trouble making friends. He said things like, “What’s wrong with me?” “Why do they always send me to the counselor?” or “I just want to be with my friends in class,” said the Texas native and social worker, who wanted to use only her last initial to protect her son’s identity.
ADHD can make it difficult to focus. So, if your child has ADHD, they are more likely to get bad grades, detentions, and suspensions. They may also have poor social skills and face rejection from their peers.
Parents, friends and other authority figures such as teachers and carers may lose patience, become frustrated with them and try to criticize and ‘correct’ their behaviour.
“There’s a lot of negative feedback coming from all these different directions, and they internalize it and start to feel really bad,” says Andrea Chronis-Tuscano, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the ADHD Program at the University of Maryland.
Several studies have shown that as children with ADHD grow into adults, their self-esteem declines over time due to increasing criticism and challenging life experiences.
In severe cases, Chronis-Tuscano says, low self-esteem can make depression and suicide more likely.
However, there are things you can do early on to help boost your child’s self-esteem.
According to experts, getting to know the root cause of the behavior can be the first step in creating a sense of relief for both parents and children – and the sooner the better. In this way, parents and their children can manage the challenges of living with ADHD and build on strategies to make things better.
Talk to your pediatrician or therapist about your child’s behavior. If they need specialist care, your medical team can point you in the right direction.
Devon says he waited about a year to try different strategies with the school to change his behavior. Some family members told him he worried too much and that “boys will be boys.” But she eventually took him to a behavioral pediatrician, who diagnosed him with ADHD.
Nicole Vredenburg heard similar words from family members when she tried to get help for her 5-year-old son. But Vredenburg, who has adult-onset ADHD and a brother with the condition, decided to trust her instincts.
“I feel like people are waiting too long,” he says. “I would always say if there is ever a question, go with the first initial diagnosis. I’m so glad I did it at such a young age.”
ADHD can also run in families. According to research, you are nine times more likely to get it if a close relative has it. Around the same time Vredenburg’s son was diagnosed, her 9-year-old daughter discovered she also had ADHD.
If you have a child with ADHD and low self-esteem, experts say there are specific things you can do to help build your child’s self-esteem and confidence. Doctors call this “parental reflexive functioning.”
Make an effort to recognize, understand, and accommodate your child’s ADHD symptoms, which can lead to low self-esteem.
Recognize your child’s successes – big or small. Chronis-Tuscano encourages parents and teachers to focus on the positive instead of pointing out what they are struggling with.
“[We] Teach them to look for positives and even efforts—even small improvements—that may be difficult for them. When you see them sit down right after school to do their homework and say, “Well, you know, that’s great!” – says.
Give lots of praise. Making amends and being specific can be positive reinforcement for your child. Not only can this improve your child’s self-esteem, but it can also help him understand what it takes to complete basic tasks.
Vredenburg says he gives “massive praise,” and often does.
“I praise the smallest thing that seems mean like, ‘Wow, I like that you opened your book bag the first time I asked.'” It’s small, but I want to build on something [they] You did good.”
Identify their strengths. Focus on what your child is already good at and encourage them to do that. This can increase their pride and sense of accomplishment.
Parents can do this by helping their children with ADHD “find their niche,” says Chronis-Tuscano.
“Find a career and a path where they can really play to their strengths and where their struggles don’t detract from them as much,” she says.
“Many adults with ADHD can be in these exciting careers where they’re not sitting at a desk, checking data entry, or doing things that require a lot of attention. But they are there and moving around, like emergency doctors or consultants and contractors.
“It’s all about finding the best match for them,” says Chronis-Tuscano.
Break tasks down and make them fun. If your child finds certain activities difficult, experts say it helps to break them down into small, manageable tasks. This way you can give them a chance to succeed. It can include rewards for things they don’t necessarily like.
“My son is a math genius,” says Devon. “But when it comes to reading, it’s the opposite. So if you’re going to write literature, I’d better make it interesting.”
If your son has a book list to read for school, you let him take turns reading his favorite comic book.
Model good behavior. To reduce the negative feedback your child may receive, you need to show them what good behavior looks like.
“Basically, the adults around them need to model for them how to regulate their own emotions,” says Chronis-Tuscano.
Find or ask for help if you need it. Children with ADHD may need help with schoolwork, such as homework and other tasks at home. You may not be able to give them all the support and help you need. If you can’t handle the demands, it’s okay to ask for professional help.
“Even though I want to be the most aware person in their lives, it’s really hard when you’re in it and you have the emotions,” says Vredenburg. “So I know I need people like my village to help bring out the best in the house.”
Vredenburg, who also had to deal with her own ADHD symptoms, decided to bring in a professional to find ways to help her children with homework and studying.
In most cases, doctors choose therapy rather than stimulant medication as the first line of treatment for low self-esteem associated with ADHD. Your doctor may refer you to a therapist or child psychologist who specializes in problems related to ADHD. They may need organizational skills training and cognitive behavioral therapy.
“Many times, people with ADHD who do well have used a number of different strategies, such as calendar systems and prioritized to-do lists. And those are skills that won’t be learned from drugs,” says Chronis-Tuscano.
Navigating the ups and downs of ADHD can leave you feeling exhausted. However, parenting training can help build skills and give you the tools to ensure your child gets the best support.
Learn how to teach your child positive behaviors and skills at home. This can help them adjust at school and in their relationships with other children. With their help, they can also improve their self-esteem and self-control.
If training and therapy don’t work, your child’s doctor may prescribe medication. ADHD medications, which your doctor calls stimulants, can help your child focus and reach his goals. They can also help manage your child’s general behavior.
If you have any doubts or concerns about medications, talk to your doctor.
At the end of the day, Vredenburg says, it’s important to remind the child that they’re more than status.
“They need to know, ‘I don’t have ADHD. I have ADHD. So it’s about trying to give them the tools to go about building their self-esteem.”