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Chill Skills: Calming My Emotional Child with ADHD

When my son’s frustration leads to outbursts and meltdowns, I pull out these tricks that are helping him learn to regulate his emotions.

In our household, we find ourselves saying, “Is it really worth all that?” to our son, Ricochet. His responses to frustration and social issues are often overdone for an 11-year-old boy. This is due to his ADHD and learning disabilities, and can usually be tracked back to two triggers: an overly sensitive emotional reaction or the inability to handle a small amount of frustration appropriately.

Just this morning Ricochet begged me not to make him go to school. I reminded him that it is Field Day, and he will have more fun than usual, but that only made it worse. After I got him inside the school building, I realized that the change in schedule and unpredictability of Field Day (and the last weeks of the school year) were probably to blame for today’s resistance to going to school. Not knowing what to expect (being without routine and schedule) causes frustration for Ricochet, which often leads to an outburst, like the one in the school parking lot this morning.

What feeds this more is the fact that Ricochet has trouble communicating how he’s feeling in an appropriate manner. At times, he has struggled with identifying his feelings. He is overwhelmed with emotion sometimes, and he has trouble labeling his feelings. You can’t deal with what you can’t define, so this often creates a troublesome situation for him and me. Now that Ricochet is old enough to start regulating his reactions, one of our current behavior goals is identifying, communicating, and regulating feelings and actions.

[Free Download: Evaluate Your Teen’s Emotional Control]

Ricochet began weekly occupational therapy (OT) again a few months ago after we took a couple of years off. His OT center works on identifying emotions and self-regulation with every patient, at every visit, through a program called The Zones of Regulation. After taking off his shoes, Ricochet goes over to The Zones of Regulation chart on the wall with his OT. The chart has illustrations of emotions and feelings, categorized by color. Ricochet uses the illustrations to identify how he is feeling. Then he uses the color of the group that emotion belongs to in order to identify if he’s in a good place or needs to do some activities/exercises to move into a better zone.

Then, as his hour in OT ends, they revisit the chart to check on how he’s feeling. If he’s in an undesirable zone, his OT works with him on activities to help alleviate those feelings and regulate himself to a better zone.

We have been trying to work on this at home. I even bought a dry-erase Zones of Regulation chart and hung it on the wall in the kitchen, next to the pantry he accesses several times a day. If Ricochet is feeling out of sorts, we talk about what zone he is in, what activities he has found helpful to “regulate” out of that zone and back to a better one, and then I encourage him to do that activity. One activity we have found effective in reducing anger is “belly breathing.” Ricochet takes deep breaths, filling and emptying his belly with air, until he feels calmer. These activities are a conscious precursor to self-regulation. Sometimes Momma needs some belly breathing, too.

I am in love with The Zones of Regulation approach, and I wish we had found it several years ago, but it’s not magic. When Ricochet is too angry, frustrated, anxious, or upset to think clearly and calmly, he can’t identify his zone and/or do the exercises to transition to a better zone. “I don’t care about what zone I’m in!” has been yelled in my face on several occasions. This isn’t ADHD treatment, but a tool to cope with some lagging skills. The key with The Zones of Regulation is checking in on your zone frequently and consistently — and as soon as emotions begin to go south — before going off the deep end.

[Take A Deep Breath: Teaching Kids to Control Emotions]

There are other behavior modification techniques for emotional regulation, too. Following are a few ideas to help smooth the emotional waters of ADHD:

  • Many teachers use small pictures on a lanyard to remind students of current appropriate behavior. This can work at home too, and possibly reduce parental nagging.
  • Talk with your child about how his body feels when he experiences each emotion. For example, “When I’m mad, my muscles are tight, my eyes squint, and my stomach hurts.”
  • We have found some products to help calm Ricochet, too: a heavy blanket, a neck-roll beanbag, the HowdaHUG chair, a Skweezer bed sheet, compression clothing, fidgets with soothing textures (Ricochet likes Velcro), shirts with hoods, and many more.

What methods do you use to calm your emotional child?

[“Calm the Crazies in Your Emotional Child”]