Teens with ADHD

“I Feel Like a Loser!” How to Build Self Confidence in Teens with ADHD

When teens with ADHD feel less than adequate, parents should use these strategies to help them bolster their self confidence, make healthy choices, and develop a positive perspective on the future.

A teenage boy reading with his hands at either side of his head.

I receive countless emails from parents of teens with ADHD, and many share a common theme: frustration about their child’s glass-half-empty outlook on life. I understand the concern: It’s hard to watch adolescents stuck in a negative headspace that we feel ill-equipped to help them escape.

But many parents wield more power than they realize. The best way to help a teen develop a positive, healthy mindset about their self and their future is to be present – and patient.

How to Build Self Confidence in Teens with ADHD

Show Up for Your Teen Reliably

Our kids’ struggles spark our own worst fears for them: dismal futures stemming from unmet potential. Much of my work centers on helping parents manage their emotions first so that they can show up for their teens in positive, productive ways.

But once we’ve processed our own emotions about struggles, there’s still the matter of our kids. How can we help them move through this period and gain a sense of purpose and (perhaps) even joy?

There are no quick fixes. Teens with ADHD are usually rigid thinkers, operating from what the psychologist and scholar Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset.” Painfully aware of their neurodifferences, most require a lot of evidence to shift their thinking and improve their worldview.

[How to Build True Grit in Teens with ADHD/a>]

It starts with our focusing on the long game and cultivating a family culture rooted in respect and connection. It continues by supporting our teens as they move through their malaise and recover a sense of purpose and hope.

Censor False Praise

Teens’ bullsh*t monitors are finely tuned to spot false praise. If they have low self-esteem, being told they’re awesome or did a great job, especially at something they feel meh about, will do more harm than good. This is especially true for kids who hear every day that they’re not measuring up to teachers’, their parents’, or their own expectations.

Though praise and incentives may be well intentioned, the research is incontrovertible: relying on external motivation can crush teens’ inner drive and interfere with the development of a sense of self. What’s more, it makes it less likely they’ll discover how good it feels to do something for the sake of doing it.

Beware of Social Media’s Influence

Studies show a correlation between high levels of social media usage and increased anxiety, mood disorders, and other mental health issues among teenagers. Devorah Heitner, Ph.D., author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World(#CommissionsEarned), offers these suggestions for parents to help teens develop emotionally healthy screen habits:

[Q: How Can I Help My Teen Better Manage Screen Time?]

  • Learn to recognize when tech is ramping up. Many teens reach for social media and tech as a default response when they’re seeking to soothe their anxiety; they may not realize that the apps and people they’re engaging with could have the opposite effect. “Focus on using the apps to connect with people you like or by following celebrities who inspire you,” says Heitner.
  • Beware of the quest for “likes.” Seeking approval or an ego boost in the form of “likes” and followers can lead teens to show up on their social media in ways that create more stress. Says Heitner, “You don’t want to change your identity to appeal to more people.”
  • Disconnect from relationships that make you feel bad. Social media frequently leads to uncomfortable emotions, including jealousy, inadequacy, and isolation. Heitner’s recommendation? Step away from connections whose social media activity sparks negative emotions.
  • Steer away from public disclosures. Says Heitner, “Kids with ADHD may be tempted to disclose a lot on social media, especially if their mental health is suffering. Reaching out to one friend or to family or a therapist will get a better result than posting publicly about their intimate feelings.”

Give Them Control

If you’ve ever felt powerless over your life, you know how it increases stress and anxiety. The same goes for teens, maybe more so, since they crave independence and control.

In their book The Self-Driven Child(#CommissionsEarned), William Stixrud, Ph.D., and Ned Johnson argue for giving kids more control over their lives to boost their sense of agency and combat stress-related disorders. This takes effort on our part. By the time our kids are teens, there are often well-worn patterns of relating to them that contribute to a sense of powerlessness. Look for opportunities to expand their control — by deciding which activity they want to do or choosing when to do their homework. When our teens feel they are in control, they will feel respected and capable.

Don’t Discount Their Negative Feelings

Most teens with ADHD have heard many times that they’re not good/smart/organized/patient enough. Still, our kids’ inner voices dole out the harshest criticism, with more regularity and volume. I often say to my teen son, who is tough on himself, “You deserve a kinder boss!”

Our kids’ inner critic, the negative self-talk that they spend so much time hyperfocusing on, isn’t going to disappear, but we can help them avoid believing everything it says. Our instinct is to engage in logical arguments or convince our kids that their inner critic is wrong. But, instead, we should listen, empathize, and acknowledge their negative feelings.

How to Build Self Confidence in Teens with ADHD: Next Steps


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Updated on October 15, 2020

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