Tips on building the self-esteem of a child with ADHD
Tips on building the self-esteem of a child with ADHD

Part 1: Build the self-esteem of a child with ADHD – what to say

By the age of 12, children with ADHD hear 20,000 more negative messages than their neurotypical friends. Let that sit with you for a moment.

Need to know: What to say to build the self-esteem of a child with ADHD

By the age of 12, children with ADHD hear 20,000 more negative messages than their neurotypical friends. Let that sit with you for a moment. It’s a statistic that all parents, teachers, coaches, and families of kids with ADHD should know.

From the time your child wakes up to the time they go to sleep, they are functioning as best as their neurology allows them. A body in constant movement and/or a mind racing with a thousand thoughts and ideas, in a world that requires them to keep still and follow sequential instructions on time.

Your child already knows they are different. The constant reprimands and corrections at home, school, and in the playground are telling them that. For many kids these negative comments become part of their inner voice, slowly eroding their self-worth and self-esteem.

Why it’s important

Day-to-day routines are a challenge when our child with ADHD doesn’t run on our timeline or have our priorities. The mounting stress of getting a family dressed, fed, and out the door, can be the trigger for many parents to lose their patience and start yelling.

Some of these phrases might sound familiar to you: “Stop playing with your toys and eat your breakfast”, “Don’t chase the dog”, “Why don’t you have your socks on yet”, “I’ve asked you to pack your bag three times already”, “You’re annoying your brother, keep your hands to yourself.”, “You’re going to make us late”, and so forth. 

Although these comments in isolation may not appear to be that bad, you need to consider how many times your child hears them at home and how many more they hear at school.

We can’t protect our kids from all the bad things people say, but we can adapt what we do and say at home to increase their capacity to deal with other negative messages.

Tips & strategies

By using a combination of the strategies below you can create an environment that your child will thrive in. Radical acceptance of their ADHD neurology will guide how you implement boundaries and consequences. 

Use the 5-1 magic ratio diligently – the 5-1 ratio is a simple approach to foster positive relationships. The theory behind this ratio is that for every single negative interaction you have with your child, you create five positive ones. It may feel weird, even disingenuous at first, but the benefits are incredibly powerful for the whole family. Keep in mind that praise works best when it is about something specific.

  • Begin the day by saying something positive. “Good morning sweetheart looks like you are full of energy to start the day!”
  • Notice and praise the small things your child does. “You did a great job eating dinner quietly and letting your sister eat hers as well.”  
  • Acknowledge the effort your child puts into a task even if they don’t complete it. “Thanks for getting started on making your bed. You’re getting better at it every day” 

As you implement the 5-1 ratio, you will start to notice the positive more often and you’ll slowly shift the negative energy that accumulates with daily challenges.

Let your child overhear you say good things – positive messages aren’t always limited to the direct conversations you have with your child. Letting them overhear the good things you say about them to other people is extremely powerful in building their self-confidence. Your voice and what you say will become your child’s inner voice of what they tell themselves. 

Label the behaviour, not the child – using labels like “whiner”, “troublemaker”, “selfish”, “annoying”, etc, will become part of your child’s inner voice and identity. These labels also influence how other people see and treat your child. Instead, focus on the behaviour, for example, “Poking the cat is going to make it upset, if you are gentle it will come to you”, “I can see someone else is waiting for the swing, can they have a turn?”, “I understand that you are feeling sad because you can’t get the toy, but I’m not going to let you kick me”.

Choose your battles but be consistent – you could spend your day correcting and admonishing your child for every little misstep or you could pick a couple of problems that matter and focus on those. This approach will greatly reduce the negative messages your child hears, but it also increases your ability to be consistent with how you address important issues. Once a problem is solved you can move on to the next.

It’s always helpful to look back to your childhood and the words your parents, teachers, and friends used to talk to you and about you. How did they make you feel?


  1. The “Magic” Positive-to-Negative Interaction Ratio: Benefits, Applications, Cautions, and Recommendations
  2. Don’t Let ADHD Crush Children’s Self-Esteem
  3. ADHD and the Epidemic of Shame
  4. A Family-Centered Approach to Planning and Measuring the Outcome of Interventions for Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
  5. What lies beneath: Parenting style and implicit self-esteem
  6. Avoid labelling your child

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