Learn to Give Better Compliments to Kids with ADHD

(3 min read)

The way we give compliments to kids matters. Word choice makes a big impact. Let’s explore how our compliments of kids with ADHD can be motivating or demotivating.

  1. Why do we need to motivate kids with ADHD?
  2. Compliments with good intentions can contain small judgements
  3. Listen to ourselves and reflect
  4. Choose better words for next time and practice them in your head
  5. Changing the dynamic with ADHD kids

Why do we need to motivate kids with ADHD?

Internal (or intrinsic) motivation in kids with ADHD can be slow to develop.

Intrinsic motivation requires:

  • Autonomy – being self-directed;
  • Purpose – the reasons you do the activity, whether for yourself and/or others;
  • Mastery – a confident level of skill from practice and experience.

When kids are young they are trying to figure out what they like (Purpose) and in which areas they excel (Mastery). Add to that the potential struggles of the ADHD brain: trouble planning and organizing, focusing at school, and sustained attention to study, and building intrinsic motivation becomes ever more difficult.

Other obstacles to intrinsic motivation can be comparing oneself to peers, being confused or unsure of one’s abilities, or hearing judgmental comments from adults.

The learning process will be unique for each child with ADHD. We need to be mindful of how our words influence the development of a child’s intrinsic motivation.

Compliments with good intentions can contain small judgements

Kids might start comparing themselves to their peers and wonder why other students can learn more easily. Adults might wonder this too. It can be frustrating to watch our children struggle but comparing them to others is not constructive.

“You got an A in Science! Good job!” implies that an “A” is good any anything else is unacceptable.

“I saw how hard you studied to earn that B in Science this quarter. Congratulations!” acknowledges the child’s effort and dedication. Let’s focus on the progress of each child relative to themselves…not to any other kid or grading scale.

Words that I choose to use in compliments might be different from what you choose. We might have different insights about what motivates each child. That is to be expected since each child-family dynamic is different! The overall goal is to become more mindful of words we use and what EFFECTS we notice.

Listen to ourselves and reflect

Once I made it a point to really listen to how I talked to my kids I could “hear” myself as if I was an observer in the room. I would give my child what I thought was a compliment only to walk away and wonder, “How did that make them feel? Did my words encourage my child’s curiosity and development or did they judge?”

I began asking myself, “How would you feel if someone said that to you?”

We have all been in situations at home, work, or with friends and family when someone thought they gave us a compliment but instead made us feel small or judged. We can apply this same perspective when we talk to our kids.

Start making mental notes (or write them down if that works better for you) of interactions with your kids. Did you like what you said? Would you say something different next time?

Choose better words for the next compliment and practice them in your head

I like to feel over-prepared for many life situations. So I imagine various conversations and practice different words and responses I might use.

Raising kids is complicated and not usually straightforward. I don’t want to flub my words in important moments. So I practice in advance.

For example: my kid has been practicing tennis in order to try out for the school tennis team. After tryouts they find out that they made the team.

After school the kids comes home and says, “I made the team!”

One response would be, “Good! I’m proud of you!”

That compliment focuses on MY feelings and MY approval. It does not acknowledge the kid’s effort and hard work that they experienced firsthand. I was not the one trying out.

A better response might be, “That’s so exciting! Congratulations!”

This compliment showcases your excitement and congratulates the child but doesn’t leave room for their feelings.

A compliment with a question could sound like, “I am so excited for you! Congratulations! How do you feel about this?”

You are making space for the child to share their thoughts and feelings in their accomplishment. This not only validates their feelings but gives them the opportunity to share details about the tryout.

Changing the dynamic with ADHD kids

Small changes over time lead to big shifts in the relationship and the ADHD kid’s self-confidence. This is a new lifelong habit your are practicing and fine-tuning. Results are not quick but can be rewarding and long-lasting.

Also, this general approach allows you to tweak your words whenever needed, since the development of children is fluid and what works today might not work a year from now.

Visit my Printables page for free downloads you can use at home.

The Learning Resources section has examples of how you can modify homework and studying to suit a child’s strengths and preferences!

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