ADHD and Emotional Regulation: A Parent’s Guide
ADHD impacts multiple regions of the brain — the ones that control attention and impulsivity, and also the ones that help us identify and control our emotions. Here, find advice for parents who find their homes overwhelmed by sudden, intense bouts of emotional chaos.
What is Self-Regulation, Exactly?
Most people would agree that ADHD’s primary challenges include focus, sustained attention, organization, and memory. However, many children (and adults) with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) also struggle to regulate their emotions. This struggle manifests as big bursts of anger or frustration, or extreme giddiness that seems incongruent with the immediate situation. Many parents describe this as “going from 0 to 60 in 3.2 seconds and with little warning.”
Studies show that affect or emotional regulation problems impact children and adolescents with ADHD because the part of the brain that controls behavior connects to the part that regulates emotions. You may call this phenomenon “big feelings” and “big reactions” in your home. But, let me get technical: Russell Barkley defines self-regulation as “the means by which an individual manages herself in order to attain a goal.” Let me take it one step further and technically define emotions.
Say Hello to My Emotions
According to McKay, Wood, and Brantley (2007), emotions are signals that alert your body to happenings around you. Those signals are powered by our senses — touch, hearing, smell, sight, and taste. We can either translate what is going on and respond positively, neutrally or negatively (e.g., I see a familiar face in the supermarket and I say hello), or I perceive this as a dangerous situation and become panicked (e.g., I’m going to look at the ground and run down another aisle).
Logging In to Self-Awareness
What does this all mean for you and your child with ADHD? To help a child who becomes emotionally inundated, we must work to increase his or her awareness of feelings in the moment and of situational perceptions — are they feeling positive, neutral, or negative and why. A therapist using a Cognitive Behavioral Approach can help work toward this goal. But a helpful first step is keeping a log or journal of the type of situations that trigger your child to become angry, upset, frustrated, anxious or sad. For example, your child may erupt in anger after working on two math problems. Or your child may get frustrated trying to follow multiple bedtime instructions at once.
Why is your child feeling that way? Your best source of information is your child: ask him! “I noticed that sitting down to work on your math homework often makes you angry. Why do you think that happens?” If your child says, “I DON’T KNOW! I JUST DO,” you can offer two (and only two) answer choices. For example, “Is math hard for you? Or would you rather be doing something else?” This will facilitate discussion and offer insight or awareness as you work to discern what thought processes are being trumped by dysregulating emotions.
Hit Pause and Break It Down
When your child’s emotions hijack her body, it feels nearly impossible to hit the pause button. As a parent and clinician, I lower the volume of my voice and speak slowly to the child or adolescent. I say, “I know this is hard for you. Let’s think about what’s going on so this doesn’t have to be so hard.” This message can be validating for your child. Even if she can’t verbalize how she feels and why, she understands that you get it and that can be relieving.
In your slow and quiet voice, try to break down the task that your child is working on. Take out a piece of paper or small whiteboard and write down the steps associated with his task. For example, making a sandwich:
- Take out bread, take out peanut butter, take out knife.
- Spread peanut butter on each slice of bread.
- Take out foil.
- Wrap sandwich in foil.
Because your child may be easily distracted by your home’s sounds and activities, this step-by-step approach may help him see the task of making a sandwich as a feasible progression of steps rather than a big task that takes a “really long time.” The ultimate goal: your child internalizes this process and (after much practice) no longer needs the whiteboard.
We all love to be told that we did something well. We feel better about ourselves and we are encouraged to succeed again so that we can gain that praise. As your child makes small strides, a simple, “I like the way you made your sandwich so quickly and easily tonight” goes a long way. It’s very easy to point out all the things forgotten or left incomplete. Try “ignoring” that and focusing on what she did do well. You may find that you’re both happier and more focused on the big picture.