Self Esteem

“I’m Just Dumb, Mom”

Children with ADHD are corrected constantly for their impulsivity, hyperactivity, or inattention. Over time, that criticism adds up — and our kids’ self-esteem and confidence tank. Learn how to effectively use positive parenting techniques to reawaken your child’s spirit.

A boy with ADHD stands outside and begins an exercise on building confidence.
ADHD Boy has confidence to venture into the unknown

“I can’t do this! It’s too hard!” How many times have you heard your child say this, even before he attempts the task? With my son and daughter, who have attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), it leads to the circular and fruitless argument: “Yes, you can!” “No, I can’t!”

As if this weren’t frustrating enough, each of my children has said, “I’m just dumb, Mom.” It is hard to hear your kindergartner judge himself so harshly. How can they be convinced, already, that they are dumb? And, more importantly, how can we start building confidence back up?

Called Out a Lot

Children with ADHD are redirected and corrected more than their peers. Because of their immaturity, impulsivity, hyperactivity, and/or inattention, kids with attention deficit elicit a lot of adult attention, whether they want it or not. Your very young child, at some point, will realize that she is monitored and reprimanded more than her peers without ADHD. At first it is only adults who admonish her, but, inevitably, peers will do the same. Over time, this pattern will affect her self-esteem.

Children five to seven years old are developing their personalities and sense of self. It is hard to see a child suffer hits to his self-esteem. My neurotypical (non-ADHD) daughter approached me after she had, once again, defended her ADHD brother and sister to other children. “I’m sick and tired of having to defend them,” she complained. “They are really smart! They just don’t have the kind of smart that shows up well.”

My daughter was correct. Some strengths and abilities don’t get enough affirmative recognition. Children with ADHD need more positive input than their peers, but they get less, particularly if they have “the kind of smart that doesn’t show up well.” A child may be musically gifted or have a talent for art or putting models together, but if a child’s strength is not in academics or sports, he won’t get the positive feedback he needs to bolster his self-esteem. Here’s how you can counteract all the negative feedback:

[Get This Free Download: What Not to Say to a Child with ADHD]

Praise That Works

Our children need to hear positive remarks from us. General remarks, such as “Good job,” are inadequate. Vague compliments are not powerful enough for a child whose self-esteem is tottering. Instead, make specific comments that praise exactly what the child is doing right. Don’t limit your positive feedback to tasks that are completed perfectly. Your child with ADHD has to work harder than most, so praise the effort. Use descriptive comments like “You kept trying even though it was hard. Way to go!”

Catch the child doing what you want her to, and reinforce it. Saying, “I like how you remembered to put your shoes on the mat” is better than “Good girl!” Tell your child what she did right. Your words help her see that she did well, and that you noticed.

Explain Away the Negative

Even though many children with ADHD engage in behaviors that bring negative consequences, their actions are typically not premeditated or done with the intent to annoy others. Children who are frequently rejected or reprimanded will conclude that something is wrong with them. They will not understand what provoked such negative reactions. This is an opportunity for a parent to help interpret a situation for a child. Discuss examples, helping your child understand the annoyed person’s perspective.

Interact with your child immediately after an incident occurs. Point out the effect that his actions had on others, and don’t assume that he already knows. For instance, your child may have barged into a group of children to join in their play or couldn’t wait his turn. Help your child understand exactly what he did, and discuss how he might do things differently the next time.

[Click to Read: “Perfect Is a Myth” — and Other Self-Esteem Boosters]

Everyone Needs Help

When your child says, “I can’t do it,” change his perspective. Explain that everybody needs help with something. Share an example from your own life, such as acknowledging that you have no sense of direction and would get lost without your GPS. Explain that saying, “I can’t do this” is giving up before you try. To say, “I need some help” is not only a better approach but is more accurate. While it’s true that some challenges are indeed out of reach, the shift from “I can’t” to “I can, but I’ll need some help” will improve a child’s self-esteem.

Discover and Develop Strengths

When given a choice of activities, what is your child naturally drawn to? Observing his preference for certain pastimes will provide clues as to what pursuits to explore with him. This may take a little detective work on your part. If you notice that your child does a lot of doodling, consider an art class to develop his drawing skills. Do you have a child who bounces off furniture and likes to hang upside down off the end of the couch? Perhaps gymnastics or swimming lessons will meet the child’s movement needs, while allowing him to be part of a group.

Tap into Video Games

For a child who needs an ego boost, and isn’t experiencing success in other realms, winning at video games provides a feeling of accomplishment. Your young son or daughter needs to feel capable at something, and video games are a strong interest among the five- to seven-year-old crowd. I would still encourage non-screen interests, but sometimes there is a place for allowing a child to experience success through a video game.

As your child’s confidence grows, instead of “I can’t do this!” you may begin to hear, “Will you help me do this?”

[Get This Free Guide: 13 Steps to Raising a Child with ADHD]