4 causes of low self-esteem with ADHD

If you have ADHD or know someone who has ADHD it’s probably nothing new to hear that people with ADHD struggle with low self-esteem. The ADHD brain works very differently than a neurotypical brain. This isn’t a bad thing; it is just different. You can read more about the positives to ADHD here. Low self-esteem with ADHD is a huge struggle, fortunately there are things you can do to help.

The 4 main reasons for low self-esteem with ADHD are the design of school systems, negative feedback from other people, being extremely self-critical, and rejection sensitive dysphoria. Let me explain this more.

The school system’s impact on low self-esteem with ADHD.

The school system has a direct impact on low self-esteem with ADHD as it is not designed for neurodivergent learning.

The typical school system is designed for neurotypical kids.  Eight hours of sitting quietly at a desk with very few breaks. Learning is mainly through verbal teachings with minimal hands-on type learning. This is not an ideal learning environment for kids with ADHD. So, kids start to act out. They get up from their desk frequently, they try to engage with other kids while the teacher is talking, they find things to fidget with, act impulsively, etc. They are trying to find more stimulation because the typical school system structure does not allow for adequate stimulation to properly engage kids with ADHD. You can read more about why people with ADHD need more stimulation here.

Negative feedback from other’s impact on low self-esteem with ADHD.

These behaviors usually receive negative responses. The teacher yells at them repeatedly, they get sent to the principal’s office, or worse they hear comments like “you are a bad kid”, “why can’t you be more like the other students?”, “why do you always have to miss behave?”, “you’re a difficult or challenging kid”. It sure is hard to feel positive about yourself and have a high sense of self-esteem if you receive continuous negative feedback.

Self-criticism’s impact on low self-esteem with ADHD.

Kids with ADHD learn very quickly that their brains work differently than other kids. Then add in the negative interactions and comments and it will tear down self-esteem over time.

This directly feeds into negative self-talk and being overly self-critical. If you are hearing negative comments from adults, then you learn to talk to yourself in that way. The sad reality is that kids with ADHD often hear more negative comments than positive ones. Their self-talk becomes; “I’m stupid”, “I’m a bad kid”, “why can’t I just be good like other kids?”, “I will never be good enough”, “I won’t succeed”.

Rejection sensitive dysphoria’s impact on low self-esteem with ADHD.

Rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD) is the emotional flooding that happens when there is perceived rejection. Dr. Dodson stated, RSD “appears to be the one emotional condition found only with ADHD.” The ADHD brain tends to default to a sense of rejection from others which leads to overwhelming emotions. These overwhelming emotions can result in overthinking social interactions and self-criticism which negatively impacts self-esteem. It can also lead to acting out, emotional outbursts, and anger. These behaviors typically receive negative feedback, and as mentioned already, results in low self-esteem. I go into more detail about RSD here.

How you can help:

Work with your school to set up an IEP for your kid. An IEP will help your kid to get the extra tools he/she needs to succeed. This may be daily one on one time with a teacher, more frequent active breaks during the school day, fidget tools to use in the classroom, a quiet space for taking tests, or alternative ways for learning. When kids have the proper tools, they can succeed.

Another way to help your kid is to emphasize positive self-talk and positive reinforcement. Kids with ADHD are creative and when encouraged and uplifted, they can find solutions that work for them. Encourage your kid to problem, solve and find different ways that work instead of trying to force him/her to do it the neurotypical way. This can help to increase self-esteem and leave kids feeling more confident in themselves.

Provide as much encouragement and positive comments as possible.  As I mentioned earlier, kids will start talking to themselves the same way that adults talk to them. Teach them that positive self-talk!

Educate your child on Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria. Having a name to identify the experience is incredibly helpful. Process through social situations with your child and provide alternative perspectives to each situation.