Q: How Do I Teach My Teen to Manage Emotions?
Emotional dysregulation is an often-overlooked, but very real symptom of ADHD. If your teen struggles to control intense emotional reactions, try these practical and peaceful strategies for encouraging calm in your household.
Reviewed on August 21, 2018
Q: “Emotional regulation is the biggest challenge for my teen! What helps to build this skill, when typical coping skills, like relaxation, deep breaths, taking a walk, are difficult to implement In the ‘tough moments?’” — Jean
Emotional regulation is a formidable challenge for many teens (and adults) with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). Whether it’s angry outbursts, excessive worrying, or intense sadness, strong emotions flood the ADHD brain and overwhelm teens’ still-developing coping skills. In the heat of the moment, they can’t effectively think about what is going on, make hard choices, or consider the consequences of their behavior. Their fledgling executive functioning skills struggle to manage emotions and reactivity and get the brain and body to settle down. They need help… but what kind? And how often?
First of all, learn to regulate yourself. Your agitation only adds fuel to your child’s fire. We all have those moments when we say something in frustration and wish we could take it back. As adults, our mature, thinking brain has the capacity to re-establish control and put those emotions back in their place. But for teens with ADHD, whose pre-frontal lobes finish maturing at age 25 or later, extra assistance is needed to learn this skill. Keeping this perspective in mind will help you manage emotions, maintain your patience, and stay cool when you’re on the verge of losing it.
Of course, managing yourself doesn’t mean you’ll never get upset; you’re as human as your kiddo and you will have your reactions. The difference is that you have the ability to notice when you’re becoming riled up and try to bring yourself back. You stop what you’re doing, take some deep breaths, call a pause in the action, and re-orient. If you have to go into the bathroom or step outside for a minute to quietly think and re-center, do that. Act like your GPS: re-center non-judgmentally. Every time you do this, you model for your teen how to do it for herself.
Teaching the executive functioning skills necessary for managing emotional upsets requires collaboration with your adolescent — and compassion for their struggles. It’s no fun for her to blow her top or worry herself sick. If she had the ability to make other choices, she probably would. But she can’t see alternatives in the moment. Practicing emotional regulation calls on several executive functioning skills simultaneously — impulse control, working memory, self-awareness, and judgment. These take time to develop and frequently don’t respond as well to direct instruction as do organization, planning, and initiation.
What’s called for in tense moments is slowing things down. Use my time-apart method to redirect things and resolve them amicably:
1. In a calm moment, sit down and talk about the topic of handling big feelings differently — for both of you. Ask your teen about what triggers her and how she would ideally like to respond. Write down her answers. Then do the same thing yourself.
2. Consider the cycle of events around an emotional tidal wave. What are the words, situations, or behaviors that precede it and exacerbate it? I’m betting there’s something that each of you says and does that really bothers the other one and increases the intensity. Write these down as well. The goal is to interrupt the cycle before the explosion.
3. Institute a time-apart system: When either of you notices that things are heating up, call for a time-apart. Decide how long you will separate, where you will go, and when you will get back together to discuss things in a calmer state of mind. Give everyone a minimum of 30 minutes to do this because it takes at least 15 minutes for the brain and body to recalibrate.
4. Discuss what types of things would be helpful to do during this break: for some folks, it’s listening to music; for others, it’s taking a walk or watching YouTube videos. Help your teen make a list of at least 3 options and post them in her room and on her phone. Maybe make one for yourself as well.
5. After an occasion when the plan is followed, give immediate positive feedback. Be specific: “I like how you put your headphones on and took the dog in the yard” or “I appreciate that you stopped yelling at me soon after I called a time-apart.” This encourages your teen to continue following your plan.
6. Expect pushback but stick to the plan anyway. It may take a while for things to click. If you need to make any adjustments, don’t do it in the midst of a ‘situation.’ Wait a day or two and then sit down to renegotiate.
Be patient with yourself and your teen. Learning to regulate emotions is a process that takes A LOT of practice to foster the changes everybody wants to see.
The opinions and suggestions presented above are intended for your general knowledge only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your own or your child’s condition.