Teaching Resilience to ADHD Children: Advice for Parents

Seven strategies to help parents teach their ADHD children how to bounce back from challenges with resilience and confidence.

Raise resilient children with ADHD, dyslexia, or learning disabilities.

ADDitude Profiles: Resilient Kids

Zach Norton
Problem: Relentlessly teased by classmates
Result: Feeling stupid
Solution: Zach’s mother rehearsed several witty retorts to throw back at tormentors, so he wouldn’t just sit there and take it.

Amanda Stickley
Problem: Being pulled out of class for extra help
Result: Losing self-confidence
Solution: Amanda’s mother got her involved with a sport that boosted her confidence, which helped her make friends.

Calvin Marshall
Problem: Getting in trouble at school
Result: Feeling incompetent
Solution: Calvin’s mother reinforced his strengths. He is great at reading maps and is insightful about friends. She tells him so.


The middle-school years can be tough for any kid, but the typical tween issues like building social skills and getting homework done are often worse for a child with attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD), dyslexia, or other learning disabilities.

Take Zachary Norton, a pre-teen ADHD student who hit a wall in the sixth grade, when academic demands increased and his feeling of social alienation worsened. He had always struggled with reading comprehension but he suddenly found it much more challenging to organize and complete writing assignments. But for this ADHD child, worst of all was bullying and teasing from classmates at school.

“There was a group of kids who were relentless, calling him ‘shrimp,’ because of his size, and rejecting him every time he tried to play with them,” recalls his mom, Sally Norton, a hairdresser in Norco, California. “He would come home and berate himself. I’d hear him in his room telling himself how he’d never be good at anything. It just broke my heart.”

Things turned around in seventh grade, when Zachary enrolled in a special intervention class, in which kids teamed up to help resolve each other’s problems. He had a chance to shine — and discovered that he wasn’t the only one who was struggling socially. His mom helped out, too, by using homework strategies that have helped many kids with dyslexia or ADHD. When he wasn't grasping written material, she read the text aloud to him — and he absorbed it more easily. Zachary seemed to bounce back from his problems and developed a feeling of competence.

The good news is that other kids with ADHD can bounce back as well. And that you can help. How? By teaching your child to be resilient, says Robert Brooks, Ph.D., psychologist on the staff of Harvard Medical School and coauthor of Raising Resilient Children (McGraw-Hill). According to Brooks, resilient children have skills and feelings in common. They feel appreciated. They can set goals and empathize with others. These skills and feelings help them succeed when others may be derailed by self-doubt. Here’s how you can develop the quality of resilience in your child.

1. Focus on His Strengths

Resilient kids are aware of their weaknesses, but they look past them and focus on their strengths. It’s their strengths that buoy them during the tough times, when they are teased or when they fail a test. It’s hard for ADHD children to focus on their strengths when they are often reminded of their shortcomings. That’s why it’s important for parents to help ADD kids build self-esteem through constructive and consistent praise.

“By focusing on your child’s strengths—or what I call ‘islands of competence’ — you’re not letting ADHD define your child,” says Brooks. “Your child should see himself as someone who has areas impaired by ADHD, but also as someone who has areas of competence. I tell kids that all of us are better at some things than others — some people run fast, some people run slow; some read fluently, others stumble over words. The key is working on our weaknesses while exercising the things we’re good at.”

After years of misbehaving on the school playground and zoning out in class, Calvin Marshall, now 13, of La Habra, California, was diagnosed with ADHD at age nine. Although some things have improved since his diagnosis—he has developed a couple of close friendships — his mom, Wendy Marshall, makes a point of acknowledging his strengths. “Calvin is a master at remembering where I parked the car at the mall,” she says. “It’s a simple thing, but I can’t remember and he can. He’s great at reading maps, too. Whenever we go to the zoo or an amusement park, I hand him the map and he gets us where we need to go.”

Calvin is also insightful about his friends and is very patient with younger children. “He just earned a merit badge in Boy Scouts by teaching the Tiger Cub Scouts about fossils, something that fascinates him,” says his mom. Reminding Calvin of what he does well boosts his self-confidence.

2. Give Credit for Her Successes

Even after children find things they’re good at, they may be reluctant to acknowledge their own successes. Always look for opportunities to place credit where credit is due—squarely on your child’s shoulders.

“Children with ADHD often have low self-esteem, so, when they’re successful at something, they typically say, ‘Oh, I just got lucky,’” says Brooks. “But if they don’t take the credit they deserve, they may not feel equipped to tackle a tough problem the next time out.”

Despite her struggles at school, Alex Dupont, 17, is a talented artist and a superb swimmer with a strong work ethic. After years of being pulled out of class and reprimanded for bad behavior, “Alex hates drawing attention, even if it’s for positive reasons,” says her mom, Andrea, who works in real estate in Syosset, New York.

Andrea makes sure Alex knows she is responsible for her successes. “Alex has achieved pretty good grades throughout high school, without special-education services,” says Dupont. “She’s starting to apply to colleges on her own, and I’m sure that, once she graduates and gets a job, she will outshine everybody. And I tell her so.”

“If your ADHD children dismiss their successes, or say that they were just lucky, you can help by honestly telling them what they did well,” says Brooks. “Say something like, ‘You succeeded because you worked hard.’ Let your kids know they have the ability to succeed.”

3. Help Him Solve a Problem

Every time you say, “You should have tried harder,” or “You’re not concentrating enough,” or “Why can’t you be more like so-and-so?” you’re setting up your child to fail. A better approach? Turn a mistake into an opportunity to teach problem-solving. Knowing how to find solutions is a key component of the resilient mindset. Instead of critiquing your child, work with him. You might say, “I see you’re having trouble focusing or staying in control. Maybe we can figure out what will work.”

“Let your child know you’re willing to help him with problem-solving,” says Brooks. “That offers him hope.”

This article comes from the October/November issue of ADDitude.

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TAGS: Self Esteem, ADHD Kids Making Friends, Teens and Tweens with ADHD

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