Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: How Can We Keep Fights From Escalating in the Heat of the Moment?

Family conflict can trigger a tidal wave of emotion in the best of us. For teens with ADHD, underdeveloped executive functioning skills make it even more of a struggle to remain calm. Here’s how parents can defuse arguments by helping children clue in to their own body signals to boost self-control.

Q: “Emotional regulation is the biggest challenge for my child. What helps to build this skill when typical coping skills — like relaxation, deep breaths, and taking a walk — are difficult to implement in the ‘tough moments’?”

Jean R.

Dear Jean:

For teens with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), whose hormonal soup adds to the complexity of daily challenges, managing intense ADHD teenage emotions can be extra tough. In the heat of the moment, it’s hard for any of us to hold it together and act the way we’d like to. Breathing techniques, calming phrases, or taking a walk are great options that tend to go out the window in the presence of anger, frustration, or fear. Instead, we yell, cry, or say things we later regret.

When hit by a tidal wave of big feelings, emotionally flooded teens with ADHD struggle to access the sensible parts of themselves. Their executive functioning skills are just not developed enough to exert appropriate emotional and verbal control and remember how they should be responding. In fact, research has linked working memory, one of the most common executive functioning challenges for teens with ADHD, to controlling and expressing teenage emotions.

We can’t stop big feelings from occurring, but we can help teens interrupt them. The first step toward assisting your son or daughter is to manage yourself. Teaching your teen better emotional self-control means practicing this yourself first. Of course, it’s nearly impossible not to be triggered when your ninth grader is yelling at you that he’s late for school because he slept through both of his alarms or when your senior daughter angrily blames you for the fact that her favorite jeans aren’t clean. While yelling back or defending yourself might release your frustration in the moment, you’re adding fuel to their fire and likely heading into an escalation.

Practicing and teaching self-regulation requires acting like the GPS in your car: You neutrally observe that you’re off course, you stop going in that direction, and you choose a new route. It means noticing, pausing, and re-calculating. You notice when your bloods starts to boil, when the volume of your voice starts to rise, and when your heart starts beating faster. Then you pause, take a deep breath, and consider what’s really going on and what’s most important right now. Then, armed with clearer thinking, you do something different.

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have a Working Memory Deficit?]

Kids have repeatedly told me that they wish their parents stayed calmer. When teens are losing it, they need you to be steady because they can’t do this reliably for themselves. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they will listen to you, but if you’re not tussling with them, then they can’t dump their emotional upset onto you. Later, in a quiet moment, you can review what happened and nudge them toward personal insight and accountability.

Now that you have a plan for yourself and your big feelings, let’s create one to help your teen. While the GPS approach may work for them, they probably don’t have consistent enough self-awareness to practice it regularly. They’ll need your assistance to figure out the signs that a tidal wave is building inside of them and how to create a useful life boat. Work as a team to reduce their reactivity; this helps them feel less blamed and more willing to cooperate.

Try these steps:

  1. When things are calm, make time to talk with your son or daughter about the tough moments. You can’t talk productively about anything in the midst of a brouhaha. Ask your teen how he or she would ideally like those rough times to go and share your thoughts too.
  2. Now look at the cycle of events that precede an explosion. What sets each of you off, and what bodily responses signal that things are escalating? Usually people have a physical reaction when something bothers them, but they can’t catch their reaction fast enough to make a calmer choice. I often tell kids that being out of breath, speaking faster, or raising voices means something’s simmering inside.
  3. Next, talk about what each of you could do differently instead of reacting in your typical ways. How could you cue each other to respond in a non-provocative way? Use the GPS metaphor as your guide. Write your ideas down and post this list in the kitchen.
  4. Agree to do something fun together if both of you successfully follow a direction on the list and do a household chore together if both of you don’t. This helps your teen feel like you’re both working to move from a place of reacting to one of responding.

When you collaborate like this to deal with tidal waves of adhd teenage emotion, your teen builds the executive functioning skills of self-regulation and verbal control that you both need.

[Talk Therapy: Getting Through to Your Teen with ADHD]

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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.

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