Devon P.’s son was about 5 years old when he found out that he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in 2018. While in preschool, Devon says he showed many of the hallmark symptoms for ADHD, like unending energy, hyperactivity, inattentiveness, and impulsivity. He was also having trouble learning.
But what caught Devon’s attention most is when it took a toll on her young son’s self-esteem.
“He was having trouble making friends. He would say things like, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ ‘Why am I always being sent to the counselor all the time?’ or ‘I just want to be in class with my friends,’” said the Texas native and social worker who wanted to use just her last initial to protect the identity of her son.
ADHD can make it hard to focus. So, if your child does have ADHD, they’re more likely to get bad grades, detentions, and suspensions. They also might have bad social skills and may face rejection from their peers.
Parents, friends, and other authority figures like teachers and caregivers may lose patience, get frustrated with them, and may try to criticize and “correct” their behavior.
“There’s lots of negative feedback coming from all of these different directions, and they internalize that and start to feel really badly about themselves,” says Andrea Chronis-Tuscano, PhD, a professor of psychology and director of the University of Maryland ADHD Program.
Several studies find that as children with ADHD grow into adults, their self-esteem tends to drop over time because of mounting criticism and challenging life experiences.
In severe cases, Chronis-Tuscano says, low self-esteem can make depression and suicide more likely.
But there are things you can do to intervene early and help boost your child’s self-esteem.
Know What You’re Dealing With
Experts say learning about the root cause of the behavior can be the first step in bringing about a sense of relief to both parents and children — and the earlier, the better. This way, parents and their kids can address the challenges that come with living with ADHD and build on strategies to make things better.
Talk to a pediatrician or a therapist about your child’s behavior. If they need the care of a specialist, your medical team can point you in the right direction.
Devon says she waited about a year to try different strategies with the school to change his behavior. Some family members told her she was worrying too much and that “boys will be boys.” But ultimately, she took him to a behavioral pediatrician who diagnosed him with ADHD.
Nicole Vredenburg heard similar words from her family members when she tried to get help for her 5-year-old son. But Vredenburg, who has adult ADHD and has a brother with the condition, decided to trust her gut.
“I feel like people wait too long,” she says. “I would always say if there’s ever a question, go for that first initial diagnosis. I’m so glad that I did that so young.”
ADHD can run in families. Research says you’re nine times more likely to get it if a close relative has it. About the same time that Vredenburg’s son was diagnosed, her 9-year-old daughter found out that she also had ADHD.
What Parents Can Do
If you have a child with ADHD and low self-esteem, experts say there are specific things you can do to build on your child’s self-worth and confidence. Doctors call this “parental reflective functioning.”
Make it a point to recognize, understand, and accommodate for some of your child’s ADHD symptoms that might lead to low self-esteem.
Recognize your child’s successes — big or small. Chronis-Tuscano encourages parents and teachers to focus on the positive things instead of pointing out what they’re struggling with.
“[We] train them to look out for the positives and even the efforts — even the small improvements — that are things that may be difficult for them. If you see them after school sitting down right away to do their homework, to say, ‘well, you know, you did great!’” she says.
Give lots of praise. Giving credit and being specific about it can bring about positive reinforcement for your child. Not only can that improve your child’s self-esteem, but it also can help them understand what it takes to accomplish basic tasks.
Vredenburg says she gives “tons of praises” and does it often.
“I praise the littlest thing that may seem so menial, like, ‘Wow, I like that you opened you book bag the first time I asked you.’ It’s small, but I want to build upon something [they] did well.”
Identify their strengths. Focus on what your child is already good at and encourage them to pursue it. This can boost their pride and sense of accomplishment.
Parents can do this by helping their kids with ADHD “find their niche,” Chronis-Tuscano says.
“Find a career and a path where they can really capitalize on their strengths, and where their difficulties are not so impairing for them,” she says.
“Lots of adults with ADHD might be in these exciting careers where they’re not sitting at a desk, checking data entry or things that require a lot of attention. But they’re up and moving around, like ER doctors or they’re consultants and entrepreneurs.
“It’s about finding the best match for them,” Chronis-Tuscano says.
Break down tasks and make them fun. If your child finds certain activities hard to do, experts say it helps to break them down into small, manageable tasks. This way, you can give them a chance to be successful. It can include a reward for doing things they don’t necessarily like.
“My son is a math genius,” Devon says. “But when it comes to reading, it’s polar-opposite. So, if he has to do literature, I better make it interesting.”
If her son has to read a list of books for school, she lets him alternate his readings with his favorite comic book.
Model good behavior. To cut down on negative feedback your child might get, you may have to show them what good behavior looks like.
“Basically, the adults around them need to model for them how to regulate their own emotions,” Chronis-Tuscano says.
Find or ask for help if you need it. Children with ADHD may need help to get through school tasks like homework and other chores at home. You may not be able to provide all of the support and help they need. If you can’t manage the demands, it’s OK to ask for professional help.
“Even though I want to be the most knowledgeable person in their life, it’s really difficult when you’re in it and you have the emotions invested,” Vredenburg says. “So, I know that I need other people like my village to help me to do the best in the house.”
Vredenburg, who had to also manage her own ADHD symptoms, chose to bring in a professional to find ways to help her kids with homework and learning.
In most cases, doctors tend to choose therapy more than stimulant drugs as the first line of treatment to deal with low self-esteem tied to ADHD. Your doctor may refer you to a therapist or child psychologists who specialize in ADHD-related problems. They may need organization skills training and cognitive behavioral therapy.
“A lot of times, people with ADHD who do well have employed a number of different strategies, like using a calendar system and a prioritized task list. And those are skills that they’re not going to learn from medication,” Chronis-Tuscano says.
Navigating through the ups and downs of ADHD may leave you feeling exhausted. But parent training can help you build skills and give you the right tools to get your child the best support.
You may learn how to teach your child positive behaviors and skills at home. This can help them adapt at school and in their relationships with other kids. It can also help them improve their self-esteem and self-control.
If training and therapy don’t work, your child’s doctor may prescribe medication. The ones for ADHD, which you may hear your doctor call stimulants, may help your child focus and achieve their goals. They could help manage your child’s overall behavior, too.
If you have any hesitations or concerns about medications, talk to you doctor about them.
At the end of the day, Vredenburg says it’s about reminding your child that they’re more than the condition.
“They need to know, ‘I’m not ADHD. I have ADHD.’ And so, it’s about trying to give them the right tools so they can do the work to bring up their self-esteem.”