It’s common for kids with ADHD to feel bad about themselves. ADHD creates challenges in all areas of their lives, from home to school.
It also doesn’t help that they often get negative feedback from all sides. Parents scold them for acting out. Teachers reprimand them for not turning in their homework. Peers tease them if they don’t fit in.
Over time, kids with ADHD internalize these messages, according to Terry Matlen, MSW, ACSW, a psychotherapist and ADHD coach. “If they’ve grown up hearing over and over again that they are ‘bad, incapable or even stupid,’ these words hang on to them and they begin to define themselves as such.”
Sinking self-confidence and self-worth can have serious risks. A person’s sense of self may deteriorate, leading to depression, substance abuse, antisocial behavior and other problems over time, she said.
Clinical psychologist Ari Tuckman, PsyD, agreed. He noted that “[P]eople with low self-worth are much more likely to struggle with anxiety and depression and to use negative coping strategies.”
Because kids with ADHD already have to deal with many challenges and setbacks, “they need a strong mindset to be able to keep persevering so that they can find the strategies and systems that allow them to be effective and accomplish what is important to them.”
“With a strong sense of self, a child will enter adulthood prepared to take on higher education, healthy relationships with peers, and have a better shot at finding a partner and entering into a long-term relationship or marriage as a healthy unit,” Matlen said.
Signs of Sinking Self-Worth
How do you know if your child is struggling with his or her self-worth?
“A big giveaway is that they frequently make negative comments about themselves, even after very minor mistakes,” Tuckman said.
They might refuse to try new things, even though they did before, Matlen said. This might be a sign that they don’t feel “competent or capable enough to excel at new activities.”
They might make comments such as, “Well, I’m not a good student, so why should I even try anymore?”
They also might avoid or diminish certain opportunities – saying, “It’s stupid, anyway” – because they really doubt their ability to perform, Tuckman said. And they might be pessimistic about other opportunities working out, he said.
Your child might change in other ways, according to Matlen. For instance, they might withdraw from friends or family; lose interest in activities they used to like; have an increased or decreased appetite (which isn’t due to developing changes, such as puberty or growth spurts); get lower grades; or lose their friends.
It’s important to examine these new behaviors and consider if a shattered self-worth is to blame, she said. Seeing a therapist can help to get to the bottom of what’s going on, she added.
Strategies for Building Self-Confidence
Here are 10 expert tips for helping your child build self-confidence.
1. Encourage your child’s strengths.
For instance, “if your child is a born athlete, find activities that he can excel in rather than pushing him into areas of challenge,” said Matlen, also author of Survival Tips for Women with AD/HD.
2. Praise effort.
“Focus on effort rather than outcomes,” Tuckman said. For instance, you might say, “You worked really hard on that paper.”
3. Appreciate them for who they are.
Talk to your child about their inner strengths, such as their kindness, humor or sensitivity, Matlen said. Tell them that they make you happy simply by being themselves and part of the family, she said.
4. Find the lesson.
View failures and setbacks as learning opportunities, said Tuckman, also a speaker and author of the book More Attention, Less Deficit: Success Strategies for Adult ADHD. He gave this example: “OK, so how did that homework get forgotten? What can we learn from it and do differently next time?”
This conveys that mistakes are feedback, not character judgments, he said. “The key to success is not avoiding mistakes, but rather being willing to make mistakes, learn from them, and keep moving forward.”
5. Praise them to others.
Comment on your child’s abilities and strengths to other people in the room or over the phone when your child can hear you, Matlen said. This way they know “that your words aren’t just to give him a boost, but rather, that you really mean what you’re saying.”
6. Have reasonable expectations.
“It’s also important that parents have reasonable expectations for their kids that are based on a realistic assessment of their abilities,” Tuckman said. For instance, even smart, conscientious kids with ADHD forget their homework. It’s a task that’s especially hard for anyone with ADHD, “so give them credit for the successes that they do have.”
7. Start slow with new things.
According to Matlen, “When encouraging your child to try new things, use baby steps. Don’t push her into an advanced class; start small and work up so she can enjoy each small accomplishment, step by step.”
8. Get them involved in helping others.
“Children feel good about themselves when they are helping others,” Matlen said. Find ways that your child can help people in need, she said. For instance, “consider getting involved as a family doing charitable work.”
9. Foster new friendships.
For instance, Matlen suggested signing up your child for after-school activities that interest them — which can become opportunities to make friends.
10. Give them your full attention.
Focus on your child when he or she is talking to you, Matlen said. “Spend time with her and ask her about her day, her dreams, her goals. Really connect with your child and show you’re interested in who she is as a person.”
ADHD influences how kids feel about themselves. But, as Tuckman said, “it doesn’t have to. The better the child and their parents understand ADHD, the easier it will be to accept that it is a part of their lives, but doesn’t need to define their lives.”