Beating Poor Self-Esteem

Find out how you can help a child with low self-esteem.
My son has ADD, which he takes Ritalin® for, and a central auditory processing disorder that we just had diagnosed last June. He is in seventh grade this year and has been tutored for the auditory processing problem for about six months, with good results. Unfortunately, he has such low self-esteem that if something isn't easy (sports or schoolwork) he gives up and refuses to try anymore. He has never been particularly coordinated or good at sports, but all of a sudden things are coming together and now he won't make an effort to try the sports, either. (He tried wrestling this year and had some very convincing moments.) He is following a very academic sister and a very athletically talented brother, and I really do believe he is probably equal to both of them. What can I do to help him develop a desire to try anything to occupy his television time? He's always so discouraged, I equate him to Eyore with a cloud over his head. I have offered him art, music, sports, anything -- and he just doesn't want to. Thank you for any input you have.
This is a real challenge faced by many parents. Even though your child is benefiting from the help he has received, he's got a history that keeps calling out "You can't!" to him. This background of repeated frustration and failure can have a significant impact on the self-concept of a student with LD or ADHD that is so strong that any new task seems very daunting. Your son, like so many other kids, has learned that one way to avoid this scenario of failure and shame is simply to avoid doing anything new, anything that involves risk. Children I know have been able to move past this point because there is some significant adult (usually not a parent) who has paved a path to the activity that minimizes risk and given the child a sense of increasing mastery over some skill. Some examples: a middle school drama teacher who asks a shy boy to work the lights for a school play; a scout leader who personally invites a teenager to join the group for a special activity; a school custodian who "hires" a student to help with some important function that helps the school; a school principal who personally reads everything that a young writer with LD has written; high school student acting as a "big brother" or "big sister" to a younger child, learning together how to do something new (like ham radio or sign language); an art teacher who asks a reticent but budding artist to help her prepare for art activities (and encouraging the student "art aide" to do a demonstration model for the class); a clergy person who invites a student to help on a project at church or temple, or sing in the choir. These are all ways that children with untapped potential and fragile self-concepts can be helped to get involved and feel successful in something. The trick for parents is to find these people and ask the helping adult to make the suggestion. It's easy for a child to say no to a parent. (Look how much practice they've had at this!) It's very hard to resist an offer from a friendly, caring adult outside of the family.

Jobs that allow kids to earn a little money or opportunities for them to volunteer their services can be enormously helpful in building self-esteem. How often we have heard of a resistant student doing a great job as a baby-sitter or a dog walker? Group activities that are non-competitive (i.e., lower personal risk) are also very good for kids who are teetering between past failures and potential success. Outward Bound programs are especially good at helping kids (and adults) gain a better sense of what they can be. Getting involved in projects that help others who are less fortunate, such as Habitat for Humanity are also good self-concept builders. The hope is that such involvement will help kids be less afraid to take the risks involved in doing something new. If a child has a history of frustration and failure, an unfortunately common scenario for children with ADHD or LD, this will involve some unlearning. Classroom teachers who provide students with opportunities to take small steps toward success can help them get beyond their resistance to engage in certain subjects. For example, a history teacher can allow a student who loves music the chance to demonstrate knowledge by writing a song about an event instead of writing an essay about it. In a math class, encouraging a student to create a three dimensional model that demonstrates a mathematical concept instead of doing 20 problems on a worksheet can be a great way to help a student over the threshold of fear that often comes from repeated failures associated with more traditional approaches. I hope that some of these suggestions can help your son and others like him feel better about themselves and the contributions they can make to the world in which we live.

Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.

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