ADHD and self-esteem: What to say to your child

By Amanda Morin

ADHD and self-esteem: What to say to your child, self-esteem, girl smiling

Kids with can be hard on themselves. And that can make it tough for them to build positive self-esteem.

Even when you have the best of intentions, you might say things that can negatively affect your child’s self-esteem. Here are five common phrases — and what you can say instead.  

1. “I need you to pay attention.”

How it may affect your child’s self-esteem: Self-esteem is tied to how kids feel about themselves and their own efforts. Saying “I need you to…” tells kids that they’re doing something to please you, not themselves. It’s hard for kids with ADHD to build positive self-esteem when they think they’re disappointing you.

Kids with ADHD can also forget what they were supposed to be doing. When you don’t tell them exactly what you expect them to be doing, they won’t know how to fix it. 

What to say instead: “What do you need to get done?” Or, if you need to be more specific: “I thought you were going to eat breakfast before school. You need to be ready to leave at 7:30.”

2. “Can you just sit still for a minute?”

How it may affect your child’s self-esteem: Because of differences in the brain, kids with ADHD can’t always control their need to move around — and they know it. 

Asking kids to control something they haven’t learned to manage yet can make them feel defeated. And that can make it hard for them to feel good about the times they are able to control it. They may wonder if you notice when they do manage to sit still.  

What to say instead: “I know it’s not always easy for you to sit still and you’re probably trying. Can you sit here and tap your feet or use a fidget instead?”   

3. “You need to calm down. You’re overreacting.”

How it may affect your child’s self-esteem: ADHD makes it hard to manage emotions. Kids with ADHD might have big reactions before they think about whether those reactions are appropriate for the situation.  

It’s hard for kids to feel good about themselves when they’re told their feelings aren’t OK. And being told to calm down — without helping them figure out how to calm down — can put kids on the defensive. 

What to say instead: “I get that you feel really strongly about this. We can talk it through when you can speak with me in a calmer voice.”

4. “Why are you so distracted?”

How it may affect your child’s self-esteem: You and your child already know the answer to this question: Getting distracted is part of having ADHD. But you may ask this question out of frustration anyway. 

This question can make kids believe that you think they’re always distracted — and that you don’t notice the times when they’re not. That might cause kids to doubt that they’re capable of improvement. 

What to say instead: “I know you get distracted easily, and you can’t help it. Sometimes that’s frustrating and distracting to me, too.” 

5. “Just focus!”

How it may affect your child’s self-esteem: Many kids with ADHD can’t control their ability to focus. This comment can tell kids that you think they’re choosing to not focus.

When kids think you don’t believe in them, they can have a harder time believing in themselves. They may wonder if they should be able to control their focus better.  

What to say instead: “This chore needs to get done, even if it’s hard to focus on it. If you need to take a break and come back to it, that’s fine.”

When you have a child with ADHD, it’s important to think about how your words can affect self-esteem. Kids are resilient, but they also look to you for feedback that helps them feel good about themselves. And feeling good about themselves builds positive self-esteem.  

Looking for more ways to help kids build self-esteem? 

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    About the author

    About the author

    Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.