Self Esteem

The ADHD Soul Shine Kit: Build Your Child’s Self Esteem

Low self esteem is a common problem among children with ADHD who are corrected, punished, and teased on a daily basis. This five-step plan for parents helps to build confidence and self esteem by exposing your child’s natural talents, creating strong emotional connections, and rewarding effort.

ADHD Parenting Help: Build Self-Confidence and Success at School
ADHD Parenting Help: Build Self-Confidence and Success at School

The 5-Step Plan to Build Your Child’s Self Esteem

Every child is born with gifts. A child who has the fascinating trait called attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) possesses extraordinary ones, but they may be hidden. And if they’re found, they can be tough to unwrap.

I hear from ADHD parents who say they need a plan to help them do that. Well, your wish has been granted. I have a five-step plan, called the cycle of excellence, which will reveal your child’s gifts for all to see.

The plan works best if you love your child with ADHD in the right way — with positive parenting. First, try to catch her spirit and essence. Watch, listen, and interact with her, and don’t direct or worry about getting things done. Just hang out with her. You’ll come to see who your child is.

Before she gets labeled smart or stupid, hardworking or lazy, athletic or klutzy, friendly or taciturn, engaging or standoffish, before she gets labeled ADHD or XYZ, a parent usually senses the beginnings of who her child is. Hold on to that!

Second, don’t listen much to the diagnosticians. Out of necessity, diagnosticians oversimplify. We miss the subtleties, the complexities, and the richness that makes up the spirit of a child. It is sad to see how many children lose that essence growing up. You can protect your child’s spirit by noticing it, naming it, and nourishing it.

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The cycle of excellence will do the rest. I have used it many times — and have seen it used by other parents. The plan will help your child do more than get by in life. She will thrive and soar beyond where she, her teachers, and even you may have thought she could. Now let’s get started.

Build Self Esteem: Create a Connected Childhood

Many kids grow up disconnected. They may have material advantages, but they lack the most important advantage of all: emotional connection to people, places, and activities they love.

A connected child feels involved in a world larger than himself. He feels — and feels is the crucial verb — held in place by loving arms. This feeling of connection goes deeper than beliefs or knowledge.

Connection is an inoculation against despair, a vitamin that propels positive growth. I call it the other vitamin C, “vitamin connect.” Of course, the key to the development of any child is love, which begets the feeling of connectedness.

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

When I urge you to create a connected childhood, I am not referring to electronic connections — cell phones, instant messaging, and the Internet. I am no Luddite, harrumphing that we should turn back the clock. However, electronic devices, like ice cream, spinach, vitamins, or anything else, are best served in moderation.

A connected child has multiple points of positive connection, holding her in place, stabilizing her, and giving her joy, as well as direction. Connection to family is at the heart of it. But “connected” does not mean “without conflict.” The opposite of connection is not conflict, but indifference. The way to create a connected family is to spend time together, talk, interact, discuss, argue, even fight. Don’t disengage. Go on outings together, take trips to the ice cream store. Honor traditions, rituals, holidays, and birthdays.

The beauty of a connected childhood is that it is available to everyone. It is free. There is no test one must pass, no dress code or pledge required. Helping your child with ADHD make connections is where you should put your greatest efforts.

Build Self Esteem: Encourage Play

Connection leads to step two in the cycle of excellence — play.

Play is any activity that engages a child’s imagination and makes his mind light up. You can ‘play’ while making your bed, imagining the sheets to be ghosts or the walls of billowy caverns. You can ‘play’ at solving a geometry problem, as you tinker with one proof after another until the most elegant one pops out. You can even ‘play’ picking up dog poop in the backyard, as my son, Tucker, does. He races with our Jack Russell terrier, plastic bag in hand, picking up one pile after the next.

When children play, they discover the world and what kind of mind they have, what they love, and what they want to do more of. They grow. They develop feelings of “I can do it” and “I want to do it,” the feelings of looking forward to tomorrow. Such feelings are strong predictors of a happy life, far more significant than top grades or trophies won on sporting fields.

Practice that is inspired by enthusiastic play lays down habits of discipline.

Take my 15-year-old son, Jack, for instance. I gave him an AquaSkipper last Christmas. It is an aluminum contraption, with hydrofoil wings and fiberglass springs, that allows you to fly across the water by hopping up and down on pedals. Last summer, he assembled it and took it for its maiden voyage on our favorite lake. He sank — many times. But he kept at it. He began to get better. Jack’s persistence with the AquaSkipper spilled over into other areas of his life.

Too many parents, teachers, and coaches make the mistake of jumping in at this point — skipping steps 1 and 2. When problems arise, they ask the child to try harder, to practice, practice, practice. Asking a child with ADHD to try harder is like asking a nearsighted person to squint harder. Eyeglasses work better. Creating a connected childhood and opening up opportunities to play provide the eyeglasses. Once they are in place, the cycle of excellence runs on automatic pilot.

Build Self Esteem: Help Him Master a Problem

As Jack found out, mastering an activity that is challenging and important is critical to future success. I’m not saying that a child has to become the best at something. Being the best is the false idol our culture worships. What matters is making progress.

Getting better at an activity is the single most powerful force for building a child’s self-esteem and confidence.

Mastery is also a powerful motivator. Parents ask me, “How can I motivate my child?” The answer is to set him up to achieve mastery — to make progress — at an activity that is challenging and important to him.

Any child or adult wants to do more of what he gets better at. But trying to master an activity can have a downside. If, try as your child might, he doesn’t get better and only feels frustration, this step can become a confidence buster, a de-motivator.

It is imperative for a parent or teacher to set up a child to make progress. Every child can get better at just about everything, given encouragement and tutelage.

Build Self Esteem: Give Recognition

Once a child masters a problem, give him recognition for it. As Jack mastered riding the AquaSkipper, family and friends congratulated him on his progress. Jack beamed. It was great to see.

By recognition, I do not mean awarding him a prize or a lead role in the school play. I mean that someone — a teacher, teammate, parent, or friend — gives him a pat on the back or a silent nod, some word or gesture to let him know that the person notices and appreciates the progress he has made.

Such recognition solidifies the confidence, self-esteem, and motivation that mastery engendered. It also connects the child to the person or group who recognized him.

The single most important treatment for ADHD — or for any child, at any age — is to enter into this cycle of excellence. It’s open to everyone, everywhere, always. Parents shouldn’t worry as much about grades as about their child’s progress in this cycle.

A child may get poor grades in school, but still be in the cycle of excellence. His future is bright. Another child may get top grades but be living a disconnected, joyless childhood. Needless to say, his future is not as bright.

I urge you to take this cycle seriously and use it in your child’s everyday life. It is the most reliable way to unwrap your child’s gifts while helping him develop self-esteem, confidence, desire, enthusiasm, friendliness, and even moral rectitude.

Not only will your child benefit enormously. You will, too.

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Excerpted from Superparenting for ADD: An Innovative Approach to Raising Your Distracted Child, by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., and Peter S. Jensen, M.D. © 2009 by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., and Peter S. Jensen, M.D.