What to Say and What Not to Say to a Child With ADHD

The way we talk to children affects their self-esteem and their chance for future success. Find out what to say to a child with ADHD.
What to Say and What Not to Say to a Child With ADHD
Elena Sanz Martín

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 27 December, 2022

Fortunately, our understanding of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has come a long way in recent times. However, as a society, we still hold some myths that we not only hold as true but also pass on to little ones with this condition. The words we say to a child with ADHD can affect their self-esteem and condition their daily functioning. Therefore, we want to give you some tips on what to say and what to avoid when talking to little ones with ADHD.

We know that being a parent of a child with developmental challenges isn’t easy because sometimes you don’t know how to react or how to help them. And also because of your own fears about the future. However, the work of parents can contribute greatly to the welfare of the child, so pay attention to the following recommendations.

What not to say to a child with ADHD

Let’s start by highlighting some of the phrases and expressions that are best avoided. These are very common and are usually spoken by the people closest to the children. And although they’re said without bad intentions, as they’re the result of ignorance or momentary loss of patience, they can cause enormous emotional damage.

Labeling the child

There are many words and phrases that, in one way or another, end up placing labels on the child. “You’re dumb”, “you’re bad”, “you’re lazy”, among others. When we say them, we may believe that we’re helping the child to realize what they’ve done wrong and that they need to improve. But, in reality, what we’re doing is devaluing him, because we’re not influencing a specific behavior but rather their person.

Therefore, avoid these types of phrases and opt for other more constructive ones such as the following:

  • “In this exercise, you made a mistake, let’s fix it”, instead of “you’re stupid”.
  • “It’s not right to yell at people because that can be hurtful”, instead of “you’re bad”.
  • “You have to finish your homework before dinner”, instead of “you’re lazy”.
A mother looking overwhelmed as her daughter screams.
Even in moments of tiredness and despair, avoid labeling your child with ADHD. This won’t only fail to reverse their behavior, but will also produce emotional damage.

“Stop doing that”

Despite knowing that they have certain difficulties, how many times a day do you tell your child to do or not to do something? “Don’t behave like that,” “stop crying,” “stop yelling,” “concentrate for once,” “behave yourself.” Somehow, you may still think your child is doing it to defy you, doesn’t respect you, or is laughing at you.

In reality, children want to please their parents, but they do what they can with what they know and how they feel. Children with ADHD are naturally restless, impulsive, and distractible, but their goal isn’t to annoy you. Therefore, there’s no point in repeating these reproaches constantly, as you’ll only deteriorate the bond and create a negative atmosphere at home.

“Don’t make excuses”

As a result of the above, many parents stress to their children that having ADHD isn’t a reason for them not to obey, to yell, or not to do their homework properly. But, in reality, we need to be aware that their brains do function differently and that they may need extra help in certain areas.

“If you can focus on what you like, you can focus on everything else”

For many parents of children with ADHD, it’s exasperating to see how their child is distracted by the flight of a fly while studying and yet can spend hours without blinking an eye in front of a video game.

So, they can say phrases like “you focus when you get to do what you want”. Yes, indeed, this is a characteristic of the disorder, and children with this condition can hyperfocus on certain activities of interest, which also have constant and varied reinforcers (such as screens). But other elements, such as books, lack these qualities and therefore don’t motivate them to pay as much attention to them.

Therefore, avoid these reproaches because, again, the child doesn’t do it on purpose.

“Don’t tell anyone you have ADHD.”

Sometimes, out of fear that our children will be judged, criticized, or bullied, we ask them to be secretive about their condition. However, this causes them to perceive it as humiliating and embarrassing, and therefore, consider themselves to be “defective”.

What can we say to a child with ADHD?

Now then, what should we say to a child with ADHD? How should we approach them in order to help them? Here are some suggestions that you may find helpful.

“I understand how you feel”

Instead of scolding your child for their impulsivity, tantrums, or outbursts, focus on validating their emotions. This means letting them know that whatever they feel at any given moment is okay and that they have the right to feel and express it (although you’ll help them to do so in an appropriate way).

When you say to a child: “I understand that you’re angry about this, that you’re sad about what happened, that you’re nervous…” you calm them down and connect better with them. They feel seen and accompanied and this relieves their emotional crisis. In addition, with your words, you help them to understand their own emotions, to name them, and to integrate them little by little.

“You’re doing fine”

One of the less visible consequences of ADHD is the damage to self-esteem. These children grow up under constant criticism for not doing what’s expected of them, they receive scolding and hear everything they do wrong on a daily basis.

To break this toxic inertia, get used to valuing and recognizing your child’s achievements and qualities.

On the one hand, identify their virtues: Maybe they’re very creative, funny, or excellent at sports. On the other hand, value their efforts and their process, no matter what the result. Even if they’ve failed an exam, but you’ve seen how hard they’ve worked to excel, congratulate them for it.

“I’m here for you”

When your child gets upset, is hijacked by their impulses, or is overwhelmed by their emotions, they need your calm. This is the best gift you can give them because you function as their emotional support in the most difficult moments.

So, when they’re “unbearable” or when they’re “misbehaving”, count to 10, and instead of scolding, yelling, or punishing him, tell them the following phrase: “I’m here for you”.

A mother carrying her son on her back on the beach.
Staying by their side, even if it’s in silence, even if they won’t let you touch them, will comfort them deeply.

“You can do it, I’ll help you”

Accepting that ADHD brings with it a series of difficulties doesn’t imply resigning oneself to the fact that the child won’t be able to successfully complete their education or achieve their goals. On the contrary, it means taking the reins to provide the support they need.

So, try to encourage your child’s autonomy and self-confidence, remind them that they’re capable of achieving what they want, and give them the help they need. In this regard, professionals will be the ones to offer the most appropriate guidelines.

“Accept yourself as you are, you’re very valuable.”

Finally, instead of inviting the child to hide their ADHD condition, treat it naturally. Discussing it with teachers will help them to offer curricular adjustments. As for peers, it’s an excellent way to normalize diversity and encourage acceptance of others as they are.

Knowing their diagnosis and what it consists of (always explained in age-appropriate language), will also allow the child to understand, empower themselves, and not live with guilt or shame about their condition.

Words define us, use them wisely!

In short, if you’re wondering what to say to a child with ADHD, make sure your words are focused on understanding, empathy, building self-esteem, and naturalizing difficulties. Growing up in a family that trusts them, supports them, and appreciates their achievements will make all the difference.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Harpin, V., Mazzone, L., Raynaud, J. P., Kahle, J., & Hodgkins, P. (2016). Long-term outcomes of ADHD: a systematic review of self-esteem and social function. Journal of attention disorders20(4), 295-305.
  • Kimball, H. (2021, 19 agosto). Hyperfocus: The Flip Side of ADHD? Child Mind Institute. https://childmind.org/article/hyperfocus-the-flip-side-of-adhd/

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.