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ADHD and Self-Esteem

Helping the child with ADHD to grow up with a balanced sense of self‑worth requires care and effort by all who impact on his life. At every turn the child is met with situations that tend to tear down and warp the self‑image. Among these are the following:


1. From an early age, he finds himself in constant conflict with the limits placed on him by parents, teachers, and other authority figures. Since much of the behavior producing this conflict is not purposeful disobedience on his part, he is confused and frustrated. He gets the message, “There must be something wrong with me. I can’t do anything right!”

2. Lack of achievement in school reinforces the sense of being abnormal and inferior. A child who sees himself getting further and further behind his peers in achievement easily loses his self‑confidence. If this continues long enough, he may come to say, “Why try, I’m no good anyway.”

3. The child who is uneven in his development and who has significant discrepancies in his abilities may be confused by the contrast between what he can do easily and that which requires an inordinate amount of effort for rather minimal achievement. He may be puzzled as he tries to understand what his capacities really are. The amount of study, including testing, that is needed in the diagnosis of a learning disability also can create worry about himself. The child and his parents may be the victims of professionals disagreeing about diagnosis and treatment.

4. The child may be jealous of other children and siblings for whom achievement comes easily. There may be problems around school work at home; particularly if his brothers and sisters degrade him in any way for his less than perfect work. He may hear from school personnel or family the fallacy, “If you just work harder, you can do better.” The child may be upset by the kinds of work that he must do because of his disability: for example, a fourth‑grade boy cried because he was doing the same kind of work his first‑grade sister was doing.

5. Poor coordination resulting in unsuccessful performance on the playground is also detrimental to the self‑image. Other children often ridicule the one who is poorly coordinated. And ridicule from a peer burns deeply.

How to Help

While it can be difficult to overcome these problems, parents and professionals have some practical strategies to help the child retain a balanced sense of self‑worth in spite of the odds:

1. When the child breaks the rules or oversteps the limits, we should discipline firmly but kindly. We should aim the punishment at the offense and not at the child or his personality.

The child should not be told, “Would you stop? You’re nothing but trouble.” Instead we might say, “Johnny, your jumping around is really bugging me. I think you should go to your room for 15 minutes and see if you can stop.” We then send him immediately to his room. If he doesn’t go willingly and quickly, we take him by the shoulder and lead him to his room.

Rather than say, “Don’t be stupid. I’ve told you that a hundred times,” we should say something like, “I’ve explained that rule before. Please do what I asked.”

Everyone should remember that one can discipline firmly without attacking the person or worth of the child.

2. We should not punish the child for things he really cannot help such as fidgeting or being clumsy.

3. As much as possible we should positively reinforce appropriate and desired behavior. “Catch them being good and tell them so” is a healthy working motto. Always be on the lookout for the opportunity to honestly say something affirmative.

4. If we suspect the child of having a behavior or learning problem, we should seek help as soon as possible so that the proper diagnosis and treatment may be instituted. Often such early intervention can circumvent much of the stress and conflict that blocks their success.

5. We must seek an educational environment which treats the child as an individual, recognizes his strengths and weaknesses, and helps him learn in his own way at a pace appropriate for his skills.

6. We should help the child to discover his good qualities and superior skills. All of us, even those with special problems, do have some good points and superior abilities. We all have a deep psychological need to excel in some area of life. Your child’s hidden talent may be an isolated academic skill, a sport, a hobby, or music ability.

For instance, many children with ADHD are not very good at the traditional sports such as football, basketball, and track because of their lack of coordination. But often these children are quite well coordinated in water and are excellent swimmers. Thus swimming for fun and competition can be pursued as their area of excellence. One boy was a very poor reader but had perfect pitch and became a good musician in spite of his inability to read well.

7. We should not use language that attacks the child’s dignity or personal worth. Children who are belittled as youngsters are likely to grow up with a poor self‑image. They literally continue to belittle themselves throughout life. Such belittling adjectives as “rude”, “ugly”, “stupid”, or “clumsy” should not be used to describe children. Rude, stupid, ugly, etc. may be used to describe actions, if necessary, but they should not be used against the child himself. The danger is that the child may accept such an evaluation and make it a part of his  self‑image. If he thinks himself as rude, ugly, or stupid, he is likely, in the end, to behave that way: it is only natural for a rude boy to behave rudely.

Such precautions do not imply parents should not correct a child or criticize his behavior. There is, however, a big difference between criticizing the behavior and criticizing the child.

Rather than say “You are a rude boy,” a parent can say, “That was a rude thing to do. Apologize and go to your room.” Such a statement is not an attack on the child’s personality but  does show disapproval of his behavior.

To the child who brings home a poor report card a parent can say something like this: “Cathy, this doesn’t look like you. I guess we will have to set up a regular homework time.” To say “I knew you were lazy, but I never expected this from a child of  mine!” is to whittle away at the child’s ego.

It is a hard lesson for us parents to remember but discipline should be directed toward the misdeed and  not toward the child’s personality. Even if the child’s personality leaves something to be desired, to attack it will only make it worse. Remember, we get a lot more out of a child, or anyone else, with positive reinforcement of good traits than we do by criticizing the undesirable traits.


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