Motivate Your ADHD Child by Recognizing Their Achievements


For a child with ADHD, frustration often gets in the way of motivation. Use these techniques to help your ADHD child overcome frustration and focus on achievement.

Why Do ADHD Children Need Special Motivation?

All children need some motivation - to get their homework done, finish projects, or even clean their room. But ADHD adds another dimension to everything your child tries to achieve. What may seem fairly simple to other people can be maddening for a person with ADHD. All of these can be everyday problems for those with ADHD:

  • Getting somewhere on time
  • Performing tedious tasks
  • Remembering people's names
  • Breaking away from favorite activities

To make matters worse, your child's peers seem to do these things with ease. They can move from one activity to the next without digging their heels in, because transitions don't seem traumatic. They can memorize multiplication tables. They can finish their homework promptly, ignoring the siren song of more enjoyable activities.

Your child fights daily against their own nature just to do something as simple as getting to school on time. They may have aptitude test scores at the top of the charts, but they still have a hard time coping with everyday activities. When they constantly struggle with mundane tasks, it's almost inevitable that they will start to feel like something is inherently wrong with them.

As memory researcher Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway notes, ADHD can inhibit your child from remembering the details of an assignment or following a set of directions. The effect of ADHD on working memory can cause deep embarrassment in social situations, especially in vulnerable times like adolescence.

ADHD can undermine organization, social interaction, and attention regulation. It is not surprising that it can also damage your child's self-esteem. And poor self-esteem leads to poor motivation. After all, if your child feels that they can only fail, they will be very reluctant to even try.

Having ADHD means dealing with frustration even in everyday activities.

You can help your ADHD child deal with their frustrations, overcome poor self-esteem, and find the motivation to achieve. Several approaches can work together to improve your child's motivation.

Praising Your Child

Parents can motivate their children in many ways. According to, praising your child can be a way to improve their self-esteem and increase their motivation. However, it's important to understand how to praise your child effectively. Although it seems counterintuitive, certain types of praise can potentially harm your child's self-esteem.

Praise Without Comparison to Others

Avoid comparing your child's accomplishments to those of their peers. Even if they scored higher on a test than their friend or manage to keep their room cleaner than their brother does, your praise should not involve comparisons to other people.

Your child needs to learn to feel good about themselves for their own achievements, not because they ''beat'' someone else. If that is the criteria for feeling good, what happens on the occasions when someone else does better than your child? If your child is praised for being a ''winner,'' do they become a ''loser'' when they don't manage to do better than everyone else?

Praise With Comparison to Themselves

If your child consistently has problems with lateness or disorganization, praise them when they are able to overcome these difficulties. If you see that they are forming positive habits, take time to pat them on the back.

For example, you might say, ''I was very pleased when your math teacher told me that you've been turning in all your homework assignments this quarter. I know it isn't always easy, but you've really been doing a great job lately.''

Don't dwell on how badly they might have fared at these tasks in the past. Acknowledge that these can be challenging tasks, and that you are proud of their current progress.

Discreet Praise

Your child's siblings or schoolmates may see your praise as coddling or favoritism. Your ADHD child, who may experience moments of embarrassment or scrutiny due to their attention disorder, could be subject to taunting by peers if public praise is given too often.

Specific and Sincere Praise

If you continuously or generically praise everything your child does, they will soon discount your praise as insincere. Instead of building up their self-esteem, you may foster their mistrust.

Sincere and specific praise can boost your child

The more specific your praise, the more your child will accept it as sincere. If you tell them exactly why you are proud of their achievement, they will be more likely to accept it as real praise - and not a platitude. Their self-esteem will be bolstered because you have taken the time to observe what they did, to understand it, and to appreciate it.

Praise for Positive Use of ADHD

ADHD can have positive aspects, such as the ability to focus unwaveringly on a topic or task of real interest. In the same way that your child is distractible, their sometimes fickle attention can allow them to make connections that others might miss. This ADHD quality can lead to creativity. It can be a problem-solving strength.

Just as your child must constantly fight against ADHD characteristics that lead them off-topic and off-target, they can also harness some of those qualities to their advantage. When you see them use their ADHD traits positively to complete tasks and resolve difficult situations, praise them. Tell your daughter, ''I am impressed by how well you focused on your science project, so that you were able to include all those intricate concepts and link everything together in the finished product.'' Or say to your son, ''You wrote that story for your English class with incredible detail and imagination. When I read it, I could picture the world you described so vividly in my mind's eye.''

Attributing their achievements directly to ADHD qualities can be problematic. While ADHD is part of your child's identity, it is not who they are. They need to understand that it has both positive and negative aspects that can impact their lives - but they should not feel that ADHD defines them as people.

Teaching Your Child Motivation

Over time, your child will need to rely on their own internal motivation. While you can certainly be a supportive presence even into their adult years, they need to develop their self-esteem so that they can motivate themselves to achieve. Your judicious praise can help them feel positive about themselves. Teach them to build on that foundation.

As your child grows toward adulthood, they will need practical tools to keep themselves motivated. Douglas Cootey, an ADHD adult and noted author, provides a step-by-step method for adults with ADHD to overcome feelings of inadequacy. Cootey notes that there are many successful business people and entertainers who have maintained a high level of achievement, even with ADHD.

You can adapt Cootey's method for your ADHD child. These steps, summarized below, can help your child strengthen their own self-esteem - and keep them motivated by encouraging them to recognize their own achievements.

1. Let Go of the Past and Don't Dwell on Mistakes

Your child can't fix the past, and they can't let it determine their future. Teach them that the past may have lessons for us - but that it should not be a punishment for not being perfect.

2. Practice Thinking About Personal Achievements

Ask your child to start with a single achievement every day. Over time, have them think about a few more personal victories. These achievements might be ways in which they exceeded their expectations for themselves. For example, if they finished their homework without distraction or got to class on time, they should applaud themselves.

3. Revisit Past ''Failings'' in a Positive Way

Teach your child to contemplate personal achievement, and reframe difficult experiences to find the lessons within them.

Help your child figure out what problems may have been due to circumstances beyond their control. Suggest that they write down ways they might have dealt with issues better or what they might do in a similar situation. This will be like a mental rehearsal for your child, helping them to problem-solve and move forward, rather than getting stuck in the past.

4. Break Projects Down Into Smaller Steps

Propose a ''divide and conquer'' strategy to subdivide projects into manageable tasks. Your child can use some of the lessons they learned from reframing problematic past projects to finish current tasks with a sense of pride.

Motivating Your Child to Achieve

Your child's motivation is directly tied to their self-esteem. Teach them how to constructively re-evaluate their past experiences. Encourage them to appreciate their own achievements. Show them how to make personal challenges more manageable, to avoid overwhelm.

When they can build upon a series of their own successes, they will have faith in their own ability to achieve - and be much more motivated to try.

By Michelle Baumgartner
March 2017
k-12 parenting tips & tricks

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