Teens with ADHD

Compare & Despair: Social Media & Mental Health Concerns in Teens with ADHD

New research points to a link between use of social media and mental health risks among adolescents, who generally want to be accepted, popular, and well-liked. When teens with ADHD fall into the “compare and despair” trap, it can lead to lower self-esteem and frequent negativity. These tips can help boost confidence.

Female sitting at desk looking at negative comments on the internet.
Female character sitting with mobile phone at workplace. Bullying and humiliation on social media. Girl gets negative comments on Internet. Cyber bullying concept. Trendy flat vector illustration

For adolescents, the journey away from family bonds and into society at large is rife with uncertainty. To establish identity and acceptance, teens ask questions like “Who am I?” “Where do I belong?” and “What do I believe?” Well-meaning parents are often met with resistance as they walk a fine line between hovering and helping during this developmental stage.

This journey is particularly precarious for teens with ADHD, who begin adolescence with a legacy of feeling different and misunderstood. Weak executive functioning skills create challenges at school and at home, and perfectionist tendencies may both motivate and exhaust them. Teens with ADHD may require prolonged parental involvement — and they are hard on themselves as a result. Depression and low self-esteem are not uncommon. And it’s precisely these teens who are likely to make unhelpful and unhealthy social comparisons, especially on social media.

As caregivers, how can we look out for the safety, security, and well-being of our kids while allowing them a sense of agency? Sometimes, waiting it out is the key. Teens need to come to decisions on their own to feel like they’re exercising autonomy. When the opportunity does present itself, use the strategies below to boost your teen’s self-esteem in the face of ADHD.

1. Pay attention to what triggers comparisons.

Time spent on screens has increased across the board since COVID. The age of social media has thrust children into maturity before many of them can handle it, both cognitively and emotionally. Feelings of low self-esteem, poor self-image, and negative well-being often result in envy, blame, and lying.

While teens are looking for their peer groups, limiting social media use can help minimize negative social comparisons. Though it’s a natural part of identity formation, comparing our insides to other people’s outsides can create a competitive outlook on life and set unrealistic expectations. Pay attention to what triggers these comparisons in your kids. Talk to them about how they might respond differently or avoid the triggers altogether.

[Download: Too Much Screen Time? How to Regulate Your Teen’s Devices]

2. Some communication is better than none.

Teens with ADHD walk on eggshells. Though they may not always make the best choices, your adolescent wants control over how you think of them. As a result, they tend to gloss over their struggles. They fear embarrassment and try to avoid disappointment.

Instead of interrogating a quiet teen, create an agreement that you’re allowed to ask one question per day. Or let your teen choose one experience they want to share each day. As they begin to reveal negative events in their life, ask them how they would like to be supported. When teens have a sense of autonomy and you have a level of understanding, both parties win.

3. Setting the stage for friendship

We all have memories of our own adolescence when we were snubbed or left out. While it’s tempting to want to be noticed and included, it’s important for your child to spend time with people who know and care about them. If you know the parents of your child’s friends, invite them over to dinner! Use this as an opportunity to help kids socialize appropriately and connect based on similar interests. While you’re at it, remind them that being different is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s often an asset as an adult.

4. Emphasize strengths over challenges.

What does your teen like to do and feel good about? What’s going well in their lives? When we spend more time focusing on their strengths, or islands of competence, we can help expand on them. While parents can shore up their teens’ challenges, we ultimately want kids to walk away with a sense of what they can do. As a parent or caregiver, making casual statements about what your child has done well will not go unnoticed.

[Watch: Nurturing Resilience and Motivation in Children with ADHD]

5. Happiness is different than contentment

Happiness is fleeting, but contentment reflects ongoing satisfaction. We can’t snap our fingers and change, but we can create a few rituals that make us smile. Ask your child what activities they might enjoy doing to break up the monotony. Try breakfast for dinner, popcorn-and-movie nights, or visiting a place you both love. Encourage getting outside to generate endorphins and consider offering agreed-upon rewards to increase motivation.

6. Look backward to move forward

Everyone has found different ways to make it through, but how do we take those ways and move forward with them? As a family, look at what’s helped your child thus far. Write down each idea on a large piece of paper and put it in a place where they’ll see it often. When your teen has a chance to see what’s worked in the past, they’ll be better equipped to face future setbacks.

Comparison, Self-Esteem in Teens with ADHD: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived, in part, from the Facebook live event titled, “How to End Teen Compare and Despair,” with Sharon Saline, Psy.D., which was broadcast on April 22, 2022.

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