Like Hugging a Time Bomb: How to Calm an Emotionally Dysregulated Teen with ADHD
Exploding? Cursing? Slamming doors and stonewalling? If your teen’s emotions are equal parts volatile and extreme, you’re not alone. Already emotionally dysregulated teens with ADHD are feeling — and spreading — acute pandemic stress. Here’s how you can forge strong connections and diminish their stress levels.
“My 15-year-old son just won’t participate in distance learning, do dishes, do homework assignments, etc. He just refuses, which triggers the entire family.”
“How do you get through to a child who constantly shuts down gets angry when you question them about missed homework?”
“What do you do when kids call themselves stupid and useless?”
“What if your preteen claims they are bored every time they are not on a screen?”
In teens with ADHD, emotional dysregulation can seem to take infinite forms. During this pandemic, emotional triggers are more varied and plentiful than ever — as are the manifestations of adolescents’ stress. Unusual and uncomfortable learning settings without typical outlets for energy and socializing, coupled with puberty and too much screen time, has left many teens with ADHD feeling heightened and prolonged anxiety, frustration, fatigue, and anger. The end result is good for no one.
Even if your dysregulated, burned-out teen builds walls to keep you out, you can help turn things around by recognizing how stress uniquely affects them, de-escalating their worries and intense emotions, and connecting with them in productive, healthy ways. Below, are strategies for supporting, stabilizing, and building resilience in your teen during these challenging times.
Dysregulated Teens with ADHD: Signs of Stress
Puberty alone triggers emotional upheaval in the teen brain. Add ADHD, and the associated symptom of emotional dysregulation, to the mix and you’ve got a potentially explosive mix. Add in unrelenting anxiety to that mix, and you’ve got millions of frazzled families. It may appear otherwise, but your teen is trying their best. Their troubling behaviors are often masking stress and other worries. This stress often appears as:
- Resistance – “I don’t want to clean my room” or “I don’t want to do chores.”
- Tiredness/exhaustion – “I am too tired to do anything!”
- Apathy – “Why should I do my work? School doesn’t matter.”
- Boredom – often code for sadness.
- Displaced anger/frustration standing in for anxiety.
- Numbing out, mostly via screen time, to escape tediousness and find variability.
Stress also leads to emotional dysregulation – deviations from normal behaviors and moods that may look like this:
- More movement than usual (pacing, fidgeting, hand-wringing)
- Larger expressions of emotion (yelling, swearing, physical gestures)
- Uncontrolled emotions, which can even include unusual levels of happiness, excitement, and other “positive” behaviors
- Smaller gestures (short responses, stonewalling)
Dysregulated Teens with ADHD: Connect to Regulate
Dysregulated emotions and behaviors impair effective communication. When tempers flare (including yours), no productive conversations will follow. So how can you help your teen alleviate stress and regulate emotions so that you can live in harmony? By creating positive experiences that build connections. The truth is, teens are most likely to fix their problems with help from parents, but if they feel they can’t connect with you, they won’t ask for help.
Operate under these fundamental assumptions to pave the way to productive parent-child interactions:
- Everyone, including your teen, is doing the best they can. If someone is not doing well enough, it’s because they lack skills, not because they don’t want to do well. Your gentle encouragement and support can carry them through.
- You and your teen are on the same team. It’s you and your kid versus the problem. (Even if they caused the problem.)
- It isn’t personal. Your child isn’t seeking to deliberately upset or disrespect you. Remember that emotional dysregulation is real. Don’t let your fuse get lit, and don’t light your kid’s fuse either.
- Unconditional love and forgiveness – even and especially in the toughest of times — is the only way.
Emotional vs. Cognitive Communication
Where we are “coming from” when we communicate is crucial to solving problems rather than escalating them. Generally, people us two types of communication modes:
- Emotional communication focuses on feelings over facts. It is often accompanied by swearing, defensiveness, shutting down, and aggression. This is a valid form of expression, and it frequently occurs when a person is close to the issue at hand. But, this mode of communication is not always the most helpful. When we are dysregulated, emotional communication tends to take over.
- Cognitive communication focuses on problem-solving and facts over emotions. While this mode is usually the most helpful, it can lead to getting caught up in “winning the argument.” This type of communicator may appear dismissive and aloof to an emotional communicator.
Though undoubtedly difficult at time, it’s best to set the example for your teen and engage in cognitive communication as much as possible. Be aware of and try your best to regulate your own emotional state so that your child can match your cognitive approach. To ease the transition from emotional to cognitive communication for your adolescent:
- Validate their emotions by naming the emotions you’re detecting from your teen in a non-judgmental way. This lets them know that you “see” them, and helps them identify their own emotions.
- Use reflective listening (i.e. repeat back a summary of what they said) to validate their feelings and show that you understand their problems. Genuine reflection and validation also helps build trust and comfort around opening up.
- Take a walk with them to get the connection flowing. Movement and a different setting are more conducive to connection and conversation than is an unproductive, interrogation-style approach.
- Take a break from conversation because not everything has to be said in one sitting. You can go back to a tough subject at a later time, when they’re all calmer. The break may even help to get a new perspective.
- Gestures of comfort are powerful. No matter how small the gesture, do something for your overwhelmed teen that they will appreciate, like making them a cup of hot chocolate or taking giving them some time to themselves.
- The right kind of pressure can sometimes be the push your child needs. Firmly stating, for example, that you don’t want your own emotions to escalate, can snap your child into a cognitive state. This method, however, depends on your individual child, and should be used as a last resort, and should not be done as a threat.
- Recognize cursing and yelling for what they often are – surface indicators of a deeper problem. Typically, teens who resort to cursing and volatility, especially if it’s out of the norm for them, are communicating their overwhelm with a difficult situation. Keep your calm when this happens and try other ways to engage.
Dysregulated Teens: How to De-Escalate Stress
On the spectrum of anxiety, your teen’s baseline is likely somewhere between moderate and severe at the moment. More stressors push your teen into fight, flight, or freeze mode, leading to dysregulation before your teen can come back down to baseline.
Helping your teen learn to de-escalate stress in the short and long term can make a major difference in their emotions and behaviors. Some helpful strategies include:
- Prioritize physical needs, like sleep, nutrition, and movement
- Engage in temporary escapism. If you’re trying to get your teen off the screen, make sure you can actually offer an engaging alternative, like a fun board game, a scavenger hunt, or a short outdoor adventure.
- Connect with others (calling or texting a friend, visiting family)
- Exercise (playing a sport, bodybuilding, going for a run)
- Enjoy small comforts (eating a favorite meal, hugging a pet)
- Build skills, be it in sport, music, or another hobby, to boost overall confidence
- Allow your teen to identify their own de-escalation strategies
- Turn off the news
- Avoid conversations about personal frustrations and concerns
- Set clear and appropriate expectations for them; remain consistent
- Apologize when you make mistakes and lose your cool with them
- Celebrate accomplishments and support them through difficult problems
- Confront challenges head-on. Sometimes, accepting anxiety and leaning into fears can teach teens that they are more capable than they know.
The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude Expert Webinar “When Teen Stress Ignites Strong Emotions: Teaching Anger and Frustration Management” [Video Replay & Podcast #342] with Brendan Mahan, M.Ed., M.S., which was broadcast live on February 2, 2021.
Dysregulated Teens with ADHD: Next Steps
- Read: My ADHD Teen Always Blows Me Off — How Do I Get Through to Her?
- Blog: 10 Terrible Reactions to ADHD Teen Drama — and Healthier Ways to Communicate at Home
- Q&A: “My Teen is Bottling Up His Emotions. How Can I Encourage Him to Share Them?”
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