Self Esteem

Parenting Done Right: How Praise Can Help Your Child Thrive

If your child struggles with tough ADHD symptoms, it’s likely she already knows the things she can’t do well. Help her build confidence and self-esteem by using well-timed (and well-meant) praise to emphasize her strong points — rather than her weaknesses.

A father congratulating his daughter and learning how to praise a child with ADHD
Father supporting daughter, hands on shoulders, smiling

If you’re raising a child who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you probably spend a lot of time pointing out his weak points — and looking for ways to shore them up. There’s nothing wrong with trying to correct your child’s impulsivity, disorganization, or lack of focus. Indeed, it’s important for parents to do so. But focusing too intently on your child’s shortcomings may be doing a number on his self-esteem.

Children who are continually told that they’re lazy (or worse) may become so discouraged that they fail to pursue — or even to notice — the things that they’re good at and enjoy doing. Like everyone else, boys and girls with ADHD have their strengths and passions. But they’ll have a hard time figuring out what these are if parents and teachers are always disciplining and wagging fingers at them.

The point, experts say, is not to avoid criticizing your child. It’s to temper your negative remarks with encouragement and praise for the things your child does well. “People with ADHD improve their chances for success by focusing on their natural talents — the ones that consistently yield excellent performance — and by developing a plan to make those talents even stronger,” says David Giwerc, an ADHD coach (and adult with ADHD) in Slingerlands, New York. “I don’t know anyone who has gotten ahead by attempting to eliminate his weaknesses. But I have lots of clients, friends, relatives, and colleagues who have grown and moved forward by emphasizing their strengths.”

Striking a Balance

Focus on your weak points: That’s the message Steve M. got while growing up with ADHD in the 1960s. “From my very first day of school, I was made acutely aware of all the things that I couldn’t do,” he says. “I couldn’t read well. I couldn’t pay attention. I couldn’t sit still. I was very impulsive, and sometimes aggressive. My teachers, and even my friends and relatives, thought I was lazy. All anyone ever noticed about me was what I wasn’t good at.”

After high school, Steve enrolled in a community college, but flitted from one concentration to another, and ended up dropping out before earning a degree. His parents tried to help him find his way. But deep down, he says, he could sense their disappointment at his failure. A string of odd jobs left him confused and angry. “I couldn’t keep a job because I would get off-task too easily. I would make stupid mistakes because I wasn’t paying attention to details.”

Steve consulted a psychiatrist, who diagnosed his ADHD and put him on medication. Suddenly, he could focus. The doctor encouraged him to assess his interests and strengths — and move forward from there. “I had always loved to cook, but never thought I could actually make a living at it,” he recalls. With the help of therapy, he recognized that he has a knack for creating recipes. So he returned to the community college and studied food service.

Now Steve and his wife earn a good living as owners of a pizza parlor. “It took me a long time to identify my strengths,” he says. “Once I did, it changed how I saw myself and how others saw me. I know that my strengths are in the people parts of the business, not in the details. I make sure that I have good systems in place, so that the details don’t fall through the cracks.”

Now, Steve is helping his nine-year-old son, who has ADHD, explore different interests and find his own talents — and trying to keep him from the kind of problems that Steve grappled with while growing up.

Parents as Detectives

It’s one thing to say people with ADHD should focus on their strengths, another to put that advice into practice. How can parents tell what their child is good at? Giwerc encourages parents to be detectives — to pay close attention to what the child enjoys and does well, and to any circumstances that contribute to his success and happiness.

“Try to determine what your children seem naturally inclined to do and where they find success with it. I’m not urging parents to ignore a child’s weaknesses,” explains Giwerc. “But if your child comes home with a report card that is all As and one F, what will you focus on? Chances are, it’ll be the F. If you do, it can send a message that what isn’t done well is more important than what is already done well.”

Some experts say that this “finding-out” process should begin even before a child starts to show preferences or special abilities. “The first step is to actually believe that your child has strengths, that success is possible, despite — or because of — ADHD,” says Catherine Corman, of Brookline, Massachusetts, co-author of Positively ADD, and the mother of teenage triplets with ADHD. She says it’s vital for parents to pay attention to the things that interest their children.

“Talk to your kid, and find out what he really likes to do — even if it seems to have nothing to do with your idea of success. If kids with ADHD aren’t taught to focus on their strengths, it will be that much harder to feel successful.” Corman’s book chronicles the lives of people with ADHD who found success in jobs ranging from high school administrator to political consultant. She says that the one thing all these people shared was that they “felt they had permission to follow their strengths.”

How Strengths Steer Career Path

In some cases, a child’s teachers will be the first to recognize his strengths. That was true for Giwerc, whose childhood was marked by hyperactivity so severe that he routinely broke chairs. The same third-grade teacher who had him kicked out of school for his inability to stay seated was also the first to notice that he was a natural athlete.

He exploited this ability, playing basketball in college (where he graduated cum laude) and earning a black belt in karate at age 40. A decade later, regular workouts (typically done to Motown music) help him stay focused so that he can operate his coaching business. He often conducts meetings while running on a treadmill.

Robert Tudisco is another adult with ADHD whose strengths took awhile to come to light. Growing up, he knew he was smart, but no one seemed to notice. “There was more going on behind my eyes than I was given credit for,” he says.

Written communication was a particular problem for him. Once, he recalls, a teacher phoned his parents to say that Robert could barely eke out a sentence on paper. When he did manage to get something down, she said, no one could read it. Luckily, Tudisco’s teachers also noticed his talent for public speaking. “‘He can stand up in class, and just go,'” he recalls one telling his parents.

Knowing that he was a good speaker helped convince him to pursue a career in law — which, he says, is “perfect for someone with ADHD.” After law school, he worked in a district attorney’s office. He was pleased, but not surprised, to discover that his speaking ability made him formidable in the courtroom. “During a trial, things can change quickly,” he says. “You have to react quickly. I was good on my feet in court. I was a star.”

His difficulty handling the paperwork related to his cases made little difference because the environment at the D.A.’s office was often chaotic. A few years later, however, when he opened his own practice in White Plains, New York, this weakness became painfully apparent. “Suddenly, I was the one who had to run the office, keep track of time, and be organized,” he says. “It was a nightmare.”

Over time, he found ways to “dance around his weaknesses” and build a successful practice. Stimulant medication helps him keep up with desk work (although he typically forgoes meds during trials, because he feels sharper without them). Portable keyboards let him capture his thoughts without pencil and paper. Like Giwerc, Tudisco realized that he is a kinesthetic processor. As he puts it, “I need to move in order to think.” Now 42, Tudisco runs 20 miles a week — and up to 60 when training for a marathon, which he does at least once a year.

Redefining Differences

Ray Reinertsen, a college professor living near Duluth, Minnesota, spent years in a futile attempt to correct his ADHD-related weaknesses: chronic disorganization and inability to follow through. He made unending lists (which often got misplaced) and set up reward systems. (“If I complete this, then I’ll reward myself with that.”)

Nothing worked. He worried constantly about his messy office. A couple of years ago, a lecturer on ADHD encouraged him to stop ruing his weak points and, instead, to focus on his high energy levels and his empathy. He stopped worrying about the office. It was messy, he realized, because he was energetic enough to have several projects going at once. And by “allowing himself” to consider the needs of his students, he became a more dynamic and innovative lecturer.

“I’m cognizant of the fact that my students have different ways of learning,” he says. “So I teach using a variety of methods — visually, aurally, with practice written tests, and so on.” Without this empathy, he says, he wouldn’t be nearly as effective.

Like Steve M., Reinertsen thinks carefully about how he can help his son, who also has ADHD, recognize and make the most of his abilities. “Here is a kid who has been told he is lazy and stupid,” he says. “But he has some real skills,” including a natural athletic ability and a rare knack for math and computer science.

Unconventional Thinking

For many people with ADHD, including David Neeleman, founder and chief executive officer of JetBlue Airways, the key to success is simply being unconventional. Neeleman says his ability to “look at things differently” led him to develop the electronic ticketing system that is now standard throughout commercial aviation (and for which he is famous). “No one had ever thought of going ticketless,” he says. “But to me, it was a very obvious thing.”

Success came late to Neeleman, in part because his ADHD wasn’t diagnosed until he was in his early thirties. “I struggled in school,” he says. “I couldn’t study or spell, which had a huge impact on my self-esteem.” But the realization that he is a visual thinker “helped me understand how I could best learn and, ultimately, succeed.”

Ultimately, it’s up to parents to help their kids make the most of their abilities — to “strengthen their strengths,” as Giwerc puts it. Says Tudisco, “Don’t be afraid to try lots of things. Analyze what works and what doesn’t, and realize that strengths can change with time.”

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