“I’m a mess!” How girls with ADHD knock themselves down and what you can do to help

Lately, I’ve been thinking about all of the negative messages kids with ADHD say to themselves, especially girls. Girls are socialized to please others and take care of them–emotionally, physically and psychologically. Their self-worth is often tied to what people think about them and how many friends (real or virtual) they have instead of the uniqueness of their innate talents and personal traits.  Girls with ADHD, already sensitive to feedback or rejection, often interpret things more negatively and personally than the situation calls for. They are especially vulnerable to low self-worth.

Here are some comments I’ve heard from girls this month that have highlighted the power of self-criticism and negative thinking.

Keri, age 16:  I just got diagnosed with ADHD and that explains a lot but it feels bad and people were kinda harsh. When they found out, nothing was subtle because nobody expected it. They were like, ‘Wait. Really? But you’re so smart.’ It was probably intended as a compliment, but it really hurt. I was like,  ‘Well, thanks but I don’t feel smart. Look where it’s getting me.’ ” 

Stefiny, age 10:  “I really doubt myself like when I have to do something new.  I say ‘I can’t do that. I just can’t.’ I don’t know why. I kind of give up easily, sometimes.” 

Tiana, age 13: “Because when I mess up on something, I really, really put myself down really hard. I don’t know why, I just do it. And I feel like, I could have done this better, this better. It’s hard to stop.”

While it’s unrealistic to eliminate negative thinking, reducing its power and influence is crucial for fostering self-esteem and resiliency–two key issues for girls and women. We have to help girls change their relationship to their internal negative voices. How can we do this?

Notice and validate their efforts towards making changes and getting things done. Point out that the difference between what happens in real life and the stories that they tell themselves about those events. These re-interpretations directly influence the way your daughter takes meaning from anything that occurs. We want to teach girls to acknowledge the negative, critical feedback loops in their minds without being ruled by them.

Here’s how to get started:

  1. Identify the negative statements: Notice the comments your daughter makes about herself overtly or under her breath. In a quiet moment, perhaps before going to bed, ask her about what she tells herself. Instead of reminding her not to think that way, become curious about the underlying feelings. This may be painful for both of you but stay focused on her and compassionate with her struggle. Save your reaction for later, when she’s not around and seek out support from your partner or a friend.
  2. Separate feelings from being: Your daughter may feel bad but it doesn’t mean she is bad. Clarify this difference for her as much as you can. Use phrases such as “Mistakes are how people learn and you’re learning.” OR “I know you don’t like being wrong but it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.”
  3. Create a few helpful phrases to say to herself: She needs something to say to counter-act that negative voice so she doesn’t have to believe it. Work with her ideas, write things down and post them as reminders. Sample statements might be: “Everyone makes mistakes, including me. What can I do differently next time?” OR, “There’s no such thing as perfection. It’s okay to stumble, just keep trying.”

This takes A LOT of practice.  Learning to control the volume on that negative voice is a life skill that sustains crucial resiliency and self-esteem. It’s one step at a time so stay patient and persistent!