Devon B’s son was about 5 years old when he was discovered to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in 2018. While in preschool, Devon says he displayed many of the hallmarks of ADHD, such as Endless energy, hyperactivity, inattention and impulsiveness. He was also having a learning difficulty.
But what caught Devon’s attention most was when it affected her young son’s self-esteem.
“He was having trouble making friends. He would say things like, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ ‘Why do I always get 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 He wanted to use only the first letter of her last name to protect her son’s identity.
ADHD can make it difficult to focus. Therefore, if your child has ADHD, they are more likely to get bad grades, detentions, and suspensions. They may also have poor social skills and may face rejection from their peers.
Parents, friends, and other authority figures such as teachers and caregivers may lose patience, become frustrated with them, and may try to criticize and “correct” their behavior.
“There are a lot of negative comments coming from all these different directions, and they internalize that and start to feel bad about themselves,” says Andrea Kronis Toscano, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the ADHD program at the University of Maryland.
Several studies have found that as children with ADHD grow into adults, their self-esteem tends to decrease over time due to mounting criticism and challenging life experiences.
In severe cases, low self-esteem can lead to an increased likelihood of depression and suicide, Kronis Toscano says.
But there are things you can do to intervene early and help boost your child’s self-esteem.
Experts say that identifying the root cause of a behavior can be the first step in bringing relief to both parents and children—and the earlier, the better. In this way, parents and their children can confront the challenges that come with living with ADHD and build on strategies to make things better.
Talk to a 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 she waited about a year to try different strategies with the school to change his behaviour. Some of her family members told her that she was very worried and that “boys will be boys”. But in the end, I 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 herself.
“I feel like people have been waiting too long,” she says. “I always said if there was any question, go for the first initial diagnosis. I’m so glad I did it at such a young age.”
ADHD can run in families. Research shows that you are nine times more likely to get it if a relative has it. Around the same time that 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 boost his or her confidence and appreciation for your child. Doctors call this “reflective parenting.”
Make it a point to recognize, understand, and cope with some of the symptoms of ADHD in your child that may lead to low self-esteem.
Learn about your child’s successes – big or small. Chronis-Tuscano encourages parents and educators to focus on the positive things rather than pointing out what they are struggling with.
“[We] Train them to look for positives and even efforts – even small improvements – that may be difficult for them. If you see them after school immediately sit down to do their homework, to say, “Well, you know, you did great!”
Praise often. Giving and being specific about credit can create positive reinforcement for your child. Not only does this improve your child’s self-esteem, but it can also help him understand what it takes to accomplish basic tasks.
Vredenburg says she gives “tons of compliments” and she does so often.
“I compliment the smallest thing that might seem so mean, like, ‘Wow, I love that you opened the bookbag the first time I asked you. It’s small, but I want to build on something [they] Well done.”
Determine their strengths. Focus on what your child is already good at and encourage him to pursue it. This can boost their pride and sense of accomplishment.
Parents can do this by helping their kids with ADHD “find their own niche,” Kronis-Toscano says.
“Find a job and a path where they can really build on their strengths, and where the difficulties they face aren’t so detrimental to them,” she says.
“A lot of adults with ADHD may be in these exciting professions where they’re not sitting at a desk, checking data entry or things that require a lot of attention. But they’re mobile and mobile, like emergency physicians or consultants and entrepreneurs.
“It’s about finding the perfect match for them,” says Chronis-Tuscano.
Divide up the tasks and make them fun. If your child finds certain activities difficult 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 rewarding them for doing things they don’t necessarily like.
“My son is a math genius,” says Devon. “But when it comes to reading, it’s the polar opposite. So, if he has to write literature, I’d better make it interesting.”
If her son has to read a book list for school, she lets him alternate between his readings and his favorite comic book.
Good behavior model. To minimize the negative comments your child may receive, you may have to show him what good behavior looks like.
“Basically, the adults around them need to model for them how they regulate their emotions,” Kronis Toscano says.
Find or ask for help if you need it. Children with ADHD may need help with school tasks such as homework and other chores around the house. You may not be able to provide all the support and assistance they need. If you can’t manage the requests, it’s okay to seek professional help.
“Although I want to be the most knowledgeable person in their lives, it’s really hard when you’re in it and you have the feelings invested,” says Vrydenberg. “So, I know I need other people like my village to help me do the best at home.”
Vredenburg, who also had to deal with her own ADHD symptoms, chose to hire a professional to find ways to help her children do their homework and learn.
In most cases, doctors tend to choose therapy over stimulant medication as the first line of treatment for dealing with low self-esteem associated with ADHD. Your doctor may refer you to a therapist or child psychologist who specializes in ADHD-related problems. They may need training in organizational skills and cognitive behavioral therapy.
“Often, people with ADHD who do well have used a number of different strategies, such as using a calendar system and a priority to-do list. And these are the skills they won’t learn from medication,” Kronis-Toscano says.
Navigating through the ups and downs of ADHD can leave you feeling overwhelmed. But parenting coaching can help you build skills and give you the right tools to get the best support for your child.
You may 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. It can also help them improve their self-esteem and self-control.
If training and treatment don’t work, your child’s doctor may prescribe medication. Those for ADHD, which your doctor may have called stimulants, may help your child focus and achieve their goals. It can help manage your child’s general behavior as well.
If you have any hesitations or concerns about medications, talk to your doctor about them.
At the end of the day, Vredenburg says, it’s about reminding your child that he’s more than just a condition.
“They need to know, ‘I am not ADHD. I have ADHD. So, it’s about trying to give them the right tools so they can do the work to raise their self-esteem.”