Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental health condition that can affect the structure of certain areas in your brain, making it hard to focus or restrain your impulses.
Many people misunderstand this mental health condition, assuming it’s a character flaw rather than a neurological disorder.
If you live with ADHD, you might have some firsthand knowledge of this yourself. People might:
- blame you for your symptoms
- say you just need to try harder
- suggest you can bootstrap yourself to “normalcy” through willpower alone
Of course, these things aren’t true. Your symptoms aren’t your fault. And just as you didn’t choose to have ADHD, you can’t will those symptoms away, either.
It probably goes without saying, but constant criticism, blame, and shame won’t make ADHD go away. They could, however, lead to a drop in self-esteem.
Low self-esteem can lead to:
- difficulty pursuing goals or trying new things, often due to the assumption of failure
- isolation, often due to a fear of rejection or criticism from others
- difficulty saying no or enforcing other boundaries, often due to the desire to earn approval from others
Without a doubt, boosting self-esteem can improve quality of life. But in a society full of stigma, that’s often easier said than done.
Read on to learn how to help yourself or a loved one with ADHD nurture a stronger sense of self-esteem and self-worth.
Self-esteem vs. self-worth
Though closely related, these two concepts don’t have the exact same meaning.
Your self-esteem, or perception of yourself, tends to encompass things like your talents and abilities, personality traits, and accomplishments. Self-esteem might fluctuate based on the things happening in your life and the feedback you get from others.
Self-worth, on the other hand, serves as a measure of how much you value yourself as a person — whether you consider yourself capable, lovable, and worthy of respect from others.
A few possible reasons include:
People don’t always recognize ADHD as a serious condition.
Like other mental health conditions and chronic illnesses that don’t have obvious physical signs, ADHD can carry a heavy social stigma. Some people may dismiss your needs or become annoyed and angry when asked to accommodate your condition.
- Parents are more likely to criticize or act coldly toward children with ADHD traits.
- Children are more likely to bully classmates with ADHD behaviors.
- College students are less willing to interact with young adults who have ADHD.
Frequent rejection can eventually lower your sense of self-worth. To put it another way, if other people constantly treat you poorly, you may start to assume you deserve it.
Lack of accommodation
People with ADHD don’t always get the accommodations they need to succeed in school and work. These setbacks at one stage of life often have a ripple effect.
Difficulties with organization and time management can impact your performance, and the resulting low grades and poor reviews can mask your innate talents.
What’s more, lower grades in school can limit your choices of college or employment. With fewer opportunities, you have less chance of finding an environment that suits your thinking style.
If you’ve never had the chance to show your full potential and demonstrate your abilities, you might have a skewed perception of your talents. As a result, you might end up underestimating yourself.
When you have ADHD, your brain
When people criticize you for having ADHD symptoms, it can feel like they’re attacking you directly. And you’re more likely to absorb personal criticisms into your psyche, where they can damage your self-esteem.
People with ADHD tend to be especially
Whatever the cause, rejection sensitivity can make it more likely you’ll perceive neutral comments as criticism and react strongly to them.
Some people with ADHD also experience rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD). When you have RSD, even mildly negative comments can provoke panic, rage, or guilt. You may berate yourself for the supposed mistake or feel self-loathing at the thought of disappointing others.
Given all these potential challenges, you might wonder how to push back against feelings of insecurity and self-doubt.
These tips offer a place to start.
How adults with ADHD can boost their own self-esteem
One strategy to boost your self-esteem involves focusing on your internal strengths.
- Sense of control, or the feeling you can influence the direction your life takes in the long-term
- Confidence, or trust that your own skills can support you in the short-term
- Courage, or the ability to face the unknown and do what you believe is right
- Composure, or the willingness to accept things you can’t change and maintain hope for the future
- Creativity, or the ability to combine ideas and consider things from different perspectives
- Ability to love, or expressing warm feelings and accepting affection from others
Another way to raise your self-esteem involves finding people who:
- accept you as you are
- understand what you’re going through
- don’t try to change or “fix” you
These people could include family, friends, or members of an ADHD support group.
A strong social network, composed of people who take the time to get to know you, can offer a clearer mirror of yourself than the bullies and bigoted people of the world than those who put your down or criticize you.
How parents can boost their kid’s self-esteem
If you have a child with ADHD, keep in mind that your behavior can have a powerful impact on their sense of self-worth.
These tips can help you emotionally support your child:
Acknowledge their strengths
Everyone has things they do particularly well. Maybe your kid is a budding musician or has a sharp sense of humor. Kids don’t always recognize their own gifts, so if you spot a talent, say so. You may inspire a lifelong interest.
Set them up to succeed
If you want your child to do something, give them the tools to do it well. For example, if they have a paper due, you can help them organize their talking points in an outline so the task feels less overwhelming.
Even small successes can give your child confidence.
Measure growth, not rank
Avoid comparing your kid to neurotypical classmates or siblings. This unfair comparison can be deeply discouraging.
Instead, praise their effort when you notice certain skills or behaviors improving. Celebrating their growth can inspire them to try even harder.
Save discipline for things your kid does on purpose
If your kid forgets to take out the trash after dinner, scolding them for their absent-mindedness won’t do much besides embarrass them. Instead, try a gentle reminder.
Show them plenty of affection
Kids with ADHD can have a hard time making friends or fitting in at school. While you can’t always spare your kid from rejection, you can offer unconditional love at home.
Having even one supportive relationship can do a lot to support their self-worth — and perhaps even boost their confidence to seek out other positive relationships.
People with ADHD are more likely to have low self-esteem in general, but having undiagnosed ADHD can make you even more vulnerable.
A 2020 study compared adults who had an ADHD diagnosis with adults who reported ADHD symptoms but had no diagnosis. Participants without a diagnosis scored an average of 3 points lower on the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale than their peers (the scale has 30 points total).
Why do adults without an ADHD diagnosis tend to have lower self-esteem than those who have a diagnosis?
Well, imagine you’ve dealt with untreated ADHD symptoms all your life, never knowing why:
- your dirty laundry always seems to stay spread out on the floor
- you can’t force yourself to write that paper until the last second
- you never seem to make it anywhere on time, no matter how much of an effort you make
Without an explanation, you may assume you’re a naturally messy or “lazy” person.
But realizing you have an untreated mental health condition could make it easier to avoid blaming and criticizing yourself, not to mention find the right kind of support.
ADHD treatment often involves a combination of medication and therapy.
While no pill can magically boost self-esteem, therapy doesn’t just help improve ADHD symptoms. It can also help promote a healthier relationship with yourself.
ADHD and low self-esteem can combine to create unique challenges and difficulties in everyday life.
Connecting with a therapist could have benefit if you:
- tend to censor yourself in conversations for fear of annoying others
- put yourself down whenever you feel frustrated or guilty
- often worry people hate you or find you annoying when they don’t return texts or match your enthusiasm in conversations
- have a history of experiencing bullying or abuse
- find yourself losing the motivation to perform basic self-care activities like bathing and eating
According to a 2013 literature review, ADHD treatment can help improve self-esteem for children and adolescents.
Helping your child or teen connect with a therapist may be a good next step if they often:
- put themselves down to get a laugh out of others
- respond to compliments with suspicion or irritation
- refuse to try new things for fear of failing and embarrassing themself
- yell or cry every time they’re asked to do tasks you consider easy, like clean their room
- complain they’ve been frozen out of friend groups and don’t understand why
If you have other mental health symptoms
Therapy can also help if you or a loved one have symptoms of other mental health conditions.
- mood disorders like depression or bipolar disorder
- substance use disorders (SUD)
- personality disorders
In clinical samples, between
Co-occurring mental health concerns can certainly have an impact on self-esteem. But they can also make it more difficult to recognize ADHD symptoms. That’s one key reason why reaching out for help can make such a difference.
A trained mental health professional can identify ADHD and any co-occurring conditions, plus help you explore your options for treatment.
The stigma and misunderstandings surrounding ADHD can easily affect your perception of yourself and contribute to low self-esteem.
Rebuilding your sense of self-worth can take some time, especially if you’ve spent most of your life absorbing these messages. But social support, self-compassion, and guidance from a therapist can go a long way toward boosting self-esteem and helping you value yourself, just as you are.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.