Ask An Expert / Anxiety

My daughter with anxiety and ADHD says she “is not as smart as the other kids.” How can I help her find strength and motivation?

Setting the stage for success inspires confidence

Dominick Auciello, PsyD

My 7-year-old daughter struggles academically due to her history of anxiety and ADHD. She recently started commenting that she "is not as smart as the other kids." It is painful to hear her say this, and I am uncertain how to help her find the strength and motivation to work through her challenges.

This is a very common challenge for kids who, for whatever reason — attention deficit, learning disabilities, or other problems — are struggling in school. It’s natural for kids to compare themselves and their achievements to their peers. And unfortunately for children like your daughter, school emphasizes things that don’t come easy to them, and it can be frustrating. Providing her with as many opportunities to engage in activities that intersect with her strengths, so she sees that she can be successful and feel good about herself, is essential.

First off, school is important, but it’s not everything. I know that this is hard given our emphasis on school success and testing, but never forget that there are other important things in life that a child may be able to derive confidence from.

It is also very true that school success breeds confidence, and finding that for your daughter is a great place to start helping her. This might begin, to the extent that it’s possible, with modifying her work so that it is an appropriate degree of difficulty for her. There’s an idea in developmental theory called the “zone of proximal development,” which is essentially the group of tasks or subjects that kids can succeed at and eventually master with some help — things that are between “easy” and “impossible.” So if you’re giving kids things to do that are too far ahead of where their abilities are they’re going to be frustrated. On the other hand, if you only give them things they have already mastered, they’re probably going to be bored.

When a group of kids don’t have any sort of barrier to learning, the teacher can just teach to the whole class and they’re probably in the ballpark of what the kids can handle. But when you have a kid with ADHD or a learning disability what works for the group isn’t necessarily a good fit for them. If you can work with the school in some capacity to modify assignments so that they are challenging for your daughter and helping her grow, even if it’s a somewhat different expectation from other kids, confidence and success can be achieved.