ADHD and Self Esteem Issues

Many children with ADHD have problems with self-esteem. Why? And how can you improve your child's self-esteem?

Many children with ADHD have problems with self-esteem. Why? And how can you improve your child's self-esteem?

What is Self-esteem?

There are so many definitions bandied around. We like to think of it simply as being comfortable in your own skin. In children, we like to see it as a kind of protective covering that protects them from the sometimes harshness of life making more able to weather the storm, more able to cope with conflict in life, more realistic and more optimistic too. And as parents, we play a crucial role in determining how our kids see themselves.

Self-esteem is about self-value. It's not about being bigheaded or bragging. It is about how we see ourselves, our personal achievements and our sense of worth.

Self-esteem is important because it helps children feel proud of who they are and what they do.

It gives them the power to believe in their abilities and the courage to try new things. It helps them develop respect for themselves, which in turn leads to being respected by other people.

We can all get some comfort from knowing that there are no absolute right or wrongs in parenting, no expert can give advice about our own particular situation, as every parent and child is totally unique, it would be impossible to know accurately what each individual situation was like and therefore impossible for any expert to have THE answer.

The thing about nourishing self-esteem in our children is that it starts with us as the parent and our own self-esteem. As the quote goes:

'Worry not so much what you say to your child but what you do when you're around them'

Our children notice how we are all the time, which is why we promote the concept of being great role models to our kids and 'being the behaviour you want to see'

So as we move on we must all start off by recognising that we are all doing the best we can for our children and therefore we need to start by giving ourselves a pat on the back for what we are doing well. We need to celebrate our successes with our child and if there are things we read, we would like to have a go at or like to do more of, then make a mental note and start practicing in small steps. We must also celebrate our progress along the way and be kind to ourselves if we get it wrong or fall down along the way.

How is Self-esteem Affected by ADHD?

Your child's self-esteem is shaped by:

  • how s/he thinks
  • what s/he expects of his/herself
  • how other people (family, friends, teachers) think and feel about him/her

Many children with ADHD have problems in school and with teachers and sometimes have difficulties at home. They find it difficult to make and keep friends.

People often don't understand their behaviour and judge them because of it. They disrupt situations, often gaining punishments, so they may find it easier not to bother trying to fit in or do work at school.

All this means children with ADHD often feel bad about themselves. They might think they're stupid, naughty, bad or a failure. Not surprisingly, their self-esteem takes a battering and they find it hard to think anything positive or good about themselves.

The Problem of Exclusion

Hyperactive, disruptive behaviour is a key factor of ADHD. Children with ADHD can't help behaving this way, but teachers trying to cope with a disruptive child may deal with it by excluding her from the classroom.

Birthday parties and social events are a natural part of growing up, but other parents may not want to invite a child who is known to have bad behaviour. Again, this can lead to a child with ADHD being excluded.

Exclusion only adds to your child's negative feelings and reinforces the idea that they are naughty.

How Can You Improve Your Child's Self-esteem?

If your child is lacking in self-esteem, there are things you can do to help.

Praise and reward: you need to make your child feel positive about them self, so try and give praise wherever possible. This can be for large or small actions - for example, if they have tried hard at school or helped clear up after a meal. As well as verbal praise, giving small rewards can highlight accomplishments. Get them to exercise their own judgment and praise themselves.

Love and trust: don't attach conditions to your love. Your child needs to know you love her no matter how she behaves. Tell your child she's special and let her know you trust and respect her.

Goals: set goals that are easily achieved and watch your child's confidence grow.

Sports and hobbies: joining a club or having a hobby can build self-esteem. Depending on your child's interests, the activity could be swimming, dancing, martial arts, crafts or cooking. No matter what the hobby, your child will gain new skills to be proud of - and for you to praise. Sometimes children with ADHD will go off their activity, so be prepared to come up with new ideas.

Focus on the positive: get your child to write a list of everything they like about them self, such as their good characteristics and things they can do. Stick it on their bedroom wall or in the kitchen, so they see it every day. Encourage your child to add to it regularly.

How Can We Promote Self Esteem in Our Children

Allow your children some opportunities to be themselves, letting them choose an activity: remember the story about the parent who went to the zoo and let their child explore the zoo on their agenda. It was so frustrating for the parent who wanted the child to see as much as possible and so rewarding for the child who wanted to spend 2 hours with the penguins!

  • Help them develop their own tools for problem-solving, resist the temptation to solve for them, and offer support instead.
  • Involve your children in discussions, if they are old enough, about what to do if they misbehave, ask them what they could do to prevent it happening again, and what support, if any, do they need from you. Avoid labeling or name calling, even in your mind.
  • Remain firm, fair and consistent with discipline.
  • To be consistent takes resources, so spend time doing what you need to do to stay calm and patient.
  • Listen to your child, pay full attention, with lips shut to show them that what they say really matters to you.
  • Use the language of self-esteem, 'decide', 'choice', and stress the consequences of choices with your child.
  • Make it safe to fail, for you and for them, remember it's OK to apologise if you get it wrong.
  • Respect is a 2-way thing - we cannot expect a child to learn to respect others if we do not show them respect from which they can learn this from.
  • Become a positive role model, if you are excessively harsh on yourself; pessimistic or unrealistic about your abilities your child may eventually mirror you. In contrast, if you nurture your own self-esteem your child will have a great role model.
  • Show your love to your child.

Remember just like us, children do not acquire self-esteem at once, nor do they always feel good about themselves in every situation. If your child is feeling down you could try this small exercise. You could help them to write a letter to a make-believe child who is also having a bad day, let your child advise the make-believe child on how to feel good about themselves.

Getting and Giving Criticism

There are times when criticism is necessary, but children with low self-esteem aren't good at accepting criticism - or giving it nicely.

How you give criticism is important. Criticism is the other part of making your child feel loved: sarcastic, negative comments can undo all your hard work to be encouraging. So is there such a thing as good criticism?

If you want to teach your child how to accept criticism, you need to give it in a constructive way.

This means being calm, not angry, and focusing on the behaviour you want to change instead of criticising the person. It also helps if you can find positive things to say to balance the criticism. Using 'I' tends to be less aggressive than 'you'.

So if your child is struggling with a piece of school work, don't say 'you're stupid', but 'I loved the way you read the first page. It's only a couple of words you're stumbling on. That word is...'

All these things apply when your child gives criticism. For example, 'I like playing with you, but it's too cold to play outside today.'

Dealing with Criticism

The best way for your child to deal with criticism is to:

  • listen to what's being said. Don't interrupt to contradict or make excuses.
  • agree with it, where possible.
  • ask questions if unsure about anything.
  • admit mistakes and apologise.
  • calmly disagree if it's unfair, e.g. by politely saying, 'I don't agree with you'.



APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 4). ADHD and Self Esteem Issues, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 16 from

Last Updated: May 7, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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