Can you think of a time when you compared yourself to others and felt good about yourself? How about a time when you felt like you didn’t quite measure up? Unfortunately, the latter is more common. We tend to compare ourselves to people whom we think are better or happier than we are, not worse. For kids and adults with ADHD who grow up as neurodivergent, outside-the-box thinkers, it’s common to doubt yourself and feel like you aren’t enough as you are. This unhelpful mode of thinking is called “compare and despair.” It’s the distress we feel when constantly measuring ourselves against others whom we perceive to be doing better than we are.
This pattern of thinking often starts in adolescence, and, if left unchecked, holds people back from expressing their talents and reaching their full potential. Teens with ADHD are particularly susceptible to fall into this trap. At this developmental stage, they are naturally wrestling with reflecting on who they are and who they would like to become. That’s why it’s important for parents to catch the signs of compare and despair and gently guide your adolescent towards a different perspective: one that focuses less on scrutiny and more on personal value and strengths.
Measuring up to fit in
Teenagers have a deep desire to fit in, be accepted and feel included, which is where the process of examining others and contrasting themselves begins.
Adolescence is a period of growth and development, when children start forging their own identities instead of just being extensions of their parents. Teens observe and absorb how others dress, behave and function in their surroundings to figure out how they themselves should act and be in the world. They find themselves in adult bodies, but they still possess younger brains. For kids with ADHD, whose executive functioning skills can lag up to three years behind their peers, these gaps can be painfully evident.
As adolescents examine their gender, sexual, racial and ethnic identity, they ask: “Who am I, where do I belong, what do I believe?” In the shifting process of pulling away from family bonds and moving into society at large, teens measure themselves against others as a way of beginning to answer these questions.
When social comparisons become unhealthy
It’s natural to compare yourself to others and look for similarities and contrasts as part of identity formation. Comparisons can be productive. A teen with a healthy sense of competitiveness is motivated to do better at school or work harder at their sport.
Social comparisons can be motivating and inspiring: “I’d like to sing as well as Kaia so I can be in the musical next year.” However, they can also be dispiriting and hopeless: “Since I’m never going to be as fast as Joaquim, or play on the A squad for soccer, maybe I should just quit the team.” Kids frequently vacillate between these poles.
Teens are also bombarded with idealized images, videos and stories about success, social prowess and beauty standards on social media, television and print journalism. These are often exaggerated, purposefully altered or altogether fake. It can be hard to know whom to trust and what to believe–leaving your child feeling anxious and inadequate.
In fact, using social media has been found to have a significant downside in terms of self-esteem, self-concept and well-being; resulting in envy, guilt, blame, lying and increased rates of depression. When comparisons lead to an unhealthy sense of self, unrealistic expectations and anxiety, it’s not only time for a reset, but it’s also an indication that your teen may need support from a mental health provider.
ADHD teens and the compare and despair trap
“ADHD makes me feel short changed compared to others.”
The teenage years are tough for many. For teens with ADHD, this transition period can be even more difficult. ADHD teens deal with frequent negativity, lower self-esteem and higher anxiety than their neurotypical peers. That’s why they’re more susceptible to falling into the compare and despair trap.
How much of this is due to ADHD, and how much of it is adolescence? It’s hard to tell, and there’s no clear answer. Teenagers who are already suffering from low self-esteem or depression are more likely to make frequent social comparisons. This is especially true for teens with ADHD, who have often received messages from a young age that being a different type of thinker was neither something positive nor to be admired. Therefore, your adolescent needs help learning how to see contrasts between themselves and others in a more positive light, with more curiosity and acceptance and less negativity.
How can you help your teen reduce compare and despair?
Here are 5 strategies for resetting unrealistic expectations and fostering self-esteem:
1. Identify islands of competency.
What does your teen like to do and feel good about doing? Nurture this so they spend more time doing it. Guide them towards paying as much if not more attention to their strengths than their challenges.
2. Notice what is going well–when, where, what and how.
Point this out to your child. Positive feedback is essential to developing self-worth. Acknowledge small wins and validate their efforts along the way. Nurture appreciation of what is working in your teen’s life.
3. Define true friends and identify who they are.
Talk about the differences between good friends, buddies and acquaintances. Explore the traits of a friend and name the people in their life who fit into these categories. Encourage your teen to spend more time with people who make them feel good about themselves and, if necessary, assist them in figuring out how to get together with them.
4. Pay attention to what triggers negative comparisons and address those.
It’s important to help your teen find ways to either avoid these triggers and/or respond differently. Limit time on social media or get rid of apps that make your teen feel bad about themselves. Make sure you address FOMO–fear of missing out: many kids want to keep social media apps because they fear exclusion even though the app has harmful effects on their self-worth.
5. Encourage self-acceptance.
Ideally you want your adolescent to accept themselves for who they are–warts and all–and to be their own person. Deep down, they want this too. Talk about the myth of perfection. No one posts a photo of themselves with unruly morning hair or a failing grade on their history paper. Explore with your teen the limitations of comparing their insides to other people’s outsides. You really can’t know what is going on under the surface for another person.
Monroe, J. (2019, January 4). The theory of social comparison and Mental Health. Newport Academy. Retrieved April 13, 2022, from https://www.newportacademy.com/resources/empowering-teens/theory-of-social-comparison/
Read more blog posts:
- 6 Helpful Tips for Dealing with Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria
- Perfectionism and ADHD: Why ‘good enough’ is better than perfect
- How to Nurture Connected Independence in Kids & Teens with ADHD: Parenting with the 5C’s Framework
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