“Our Home Can’t Withstand All of These Emotional ADHD Explosions!”
ADHD brings with it a flood of emotions. Our children may be hypersensitive to perceived criticisms, struggle to read emotions, and differentiate between small and large problems — all challenges that become aggravated while social distancing in quarantine. Use this expert guide to diffuse emotional explosions before they burn down your home.
I recently allowed my children to purchase the movie Spies in Disguise (#CommissionsEarned), and for more than a week I was treated to an endless loop of lines from the movie. Thankfully, the animated feature reinforces some of my own values of kindness and solving problems in non-violent ways, plus it was pretty darn funny even for adults.
While my children and I laughed over the truth serum scenes and the calming glitter kitties, I found myself most attracted to the “inflatable hug,” which is an endearing device easily activated to surround and protect an individual from an explosion or detonation.
An inflatable hug sounds like just the right solution these days for children and families with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who could use some protection from the emotional explosions taking place in their homes. As a clinical psychologist, I frequently work with children diagnosed with ADHD — and their parents, siblings, and other family members as well. Despite the number of executive functioning deficits inherent in ADHD, most parents find themselves in my office due to one specific challenge: emotional control.
Children with ADHD can often become flooded with emotions; they struggle to regulate those feelings in order to control their words and actions. In addition, children with ADHD may be hypersensitive to perceived disapproval, slights, and social embarrassments. Pair that with a brain that struggles to differentiate between small and large problems, and you can have yourself an explosive situation quite frequently in the home. Hence, the need for an inflatable hug.
Tips to Help You and Your Child Recover from ADHD Anger
I use a number of strategies to help children develop an increased understanding of their ADHD brains and emotions and to find strategies that help them express themselves more effectively. At the same time, I also try to educate parents (and provide reassurance) that, while there are no quick fixes, things will improve with time and development. It is critical to remember that children with ADHD have a 30 to 40% delay in their executive functioning development, which may mean they seem 3 to 4 years younger than same-aged peers in terms of emotional control.
I often tell parents that, while we are waiting and supporting their child’s brain development, we are just trying to keep the house from burning down — quite literally these days! Below are a few tips for managing emotional explosions with an inflatable hug — and without burning down your home:
1. Watch the clock: Moments of intense anger or emotional dysregulation can feel so overpowering that they “contaminate” the entire day. While it’s true these episodes often last longer than we would like, it can help to physically watch the clock for a number of reasons. One, it can help you gauge your own emotional reactions and the amount of time you will have to wait this out. If your child normally flies into a rage that lasts 30 minutes, you can coach yourself to push pause until it de-escalates in a half hour. This can help you manage your own internal thoughts such as “I can’t stand this” or “This will never end.”
Watching the clock can also help you to create more realistic thoughts about your child’s behavior. While a very difficult emotional outburst is not easy to manage, it may be helpful to put this amount of time in the context of the entire day.
2. Conjure and cue your best self. Think about a time when you handled a situation with your child well. Write out the details and describe how you behaved, what you were thinking, and how you felt during and after. Find a way to remind yourself of this moment and your “best parent self.” Tape up this writing on the fridge or put a picture on your bathroom mirror that reminds you of this “best self.”
If you cannot recall a time when you handled a situation with your child well, then imagine what a successful interaction would look like. Be specific in writing out how you would behave, what your face would look like, and what you would say. If you need help with this, consult a trusted resource such as an admired friend, a family member, or a professional.
3. Say as little as possible in the heat of the moment. Your child will remember your words, especially when you would rather they wouldn’t. What’s more, siblings will remember what you said and repeat it later. You cannot control what your child says in the moment, but you can control the message that you communicate in those tough moments. It may be easier to repeat one or two standard phrases of support, validation, and personal limits. Going “off script” in these heated moments can be less than ideal.
4. Identify the emotion(s) underneath the anger or rage. When your dysregulated child is angry, they may say things that are both distressing and distracting. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by the outward anger, which is very often the “secondary” emotion — the manifestation of an even stronger driving emotion under the surface.
Could your child be upset because of an unexpected change in plans? Are they feeling embarrassed or like they seem babyish or uncool? Do they feel as if others are not listening or “ganging up” on them? Trying to understand the root cause of this emotion can help create some understanding, and help to keep you calm even when your child is hurling harsh words, threats, or accusations at you.
5. Wait for everyone to calm down before you have a conversation. There is no exact moment of “calm enough” — you will need to gauge your own level of arousal, the intensity of your child’s cry or tone of voice, their body language, etc. Try your best, and if you realize that one or both of you are still too upset, ask for a little more time. But make sure to come back to the conversation together to help create understanding, repair any damage in the relationship, and make a plan for the next time this emotion or situation presents itself.
6. Be kind — not only to your child, but to yourself. You have an amygdala, too! Kids can say scary, unsettling, mean, and challenging things sometimes. It is natural to feel hurt, scared, or incredibly angry. Forgiveness is a powerful tool — for both you and your child.
And if all else fails, can we get our hands on some inflatable hugs?!
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