Self Esteem

Q: “Why Is Accepting Compliments So Difficult for My Child?”

“Your compliments are intended to convey your pride and enthusiasm about your son’s effort. He dismisses them because of shame, low self-esteem, and his overactive inner critic. If we can address these issues, it will be easier for him to accept your praise.”

Q: “My 9-year-old son, who has ADHD, has trouble accepting compliments. He’s been doing well at keeping up with his schoolwork, and when I tell him this, he disagrees with me or dismisses it. What can I do?”

Accepting compliments can feel unsettling for children and adults with ADHD. Hearing that someone thinks highly about what they have been doing flies in the face of all the negative feedback they’ve heard through the years. Your compliments are intended to convey your pride and enthusiasm about your son’s effort. He dismisses them because of shame, low self-esteem, and his overactive inner critic. If we can address these issues, it will be easier for him to accept your praise. Let’s look at what’s going on and see what you can do differently.

I have been working with children and teens with ADHD for nearly 30 years and there is one sad constant that I have seen: Every single person with ADHD has a deep-seated sense of shame about having ADHD and/or being different. Whether this shame is obvious or buried, many youngsters with ADHD don’t feel good about how they manage school, life tasks, or social relationships. The negative comments they get about how they could do things better blend to make an internal narrative of negativity.

Your son might think he can never measure up to his peers. His successes are fleeting and specious; he is waiting for the inevitable moment of criticism. Like your son, many kids push away the compliments they need to hear. But don’t despair. Your compliments are droplets of rain in the desert — initially repelled but eventually absorbed.

Children with ADHD need their parents or caregivers to nurture their self-esteem. Your son is testing you: Will you take back your compliment if he screws up? Can he convince you that he’s not really doing a good job, he’s bad at school, and he’s not that smart? I hope not. Your job is to stay steady and validate him, regardless of his response. Your noticing when he’s doing well will eventually counteract his negative self-talk. By saying positive things every time they are deserved, you’ll offer an alternative voice to his inner critic.

[Free Download: Your 13-Step Guide to Raising a Child with ADHD]

Learning How to Take a Compliment: Positivity, Praise, & Undoing Shame

Here are some ways that you can share your positivity to silence your child’s inner critic and nurture self-esteem. Over time, the following will teach him how to take a compliment with grace and gratitude.

1. Normalize his ADHD brain and behavior

People with ADHD process information in unique and idiosyncratic ways. These differences make them interesting and innovative. Talk with your son about his executive functioning skill strengths and challenges. Notice his effort — how he tries to do things — as well as his accomplishments. Encouragement fosters motivation and growth. Saying, “I like how you stuck with your math and did more problems today than yesterday” lets him know that he’s on the right track.

2. Give praise using the rule of three:

  • Maintain eye contact.
  • State your compliment.
  • Ask him to repeat what he heard.

His repetition is key. It helps your comment begin its journey into his memory. You want your son’s brain to hold onto what you are saying, even if he doesn’t believe it.

[Read: Why Praise Is So Important for Children with ADHD]

3. Don’t rebut his rebuttal.

Do not argue with your child about why your compliment is right and his dismissal is wrong. When you do this, the compliment vanishes and the argument takes over. Try saying, “I know my opinions and thoughts may be hard for you to accept, but that’s what I think.”

4. Untangle his shame, anger, or self-blame with conversation.

Talking about what we find embarrassing is healing. Give your son gentle feedback about his negative thinking with statements such as, “It sounds like you’re being hard on yourself again. What could you say to yourself instead of that?” Avoid interpretation and withhold advice unless he asks for it. Listen when he wants to talk (kids pick peculiar times), and stop what you are doing to hear him.

5. Discuss highs and lows at dinner.

Ask each person at the table to share a high and low of their day, or, if they can, two things that were good about their day. These things can be small (“I had my favorite food for lunch — pizza”) or (“It was a great day; I actually won at Fortnite”). The highs and lows your son raises are less important than cultivating the ability to notice the positive.

Accepting Compliments: Next Steps

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