Ask the Experts

3 Signs of Weak Emotional Control: Yelling, Lying, and Repeating Empty Apologies

Weak emotional control is a common ADHD side effect. In children, this may manifest as dysregulated yelling, indiscriminate lying, and repeating the same mistake over and over with empty apologies but no change in behavior. Here, an expert offers strategies for each of these common challenges.

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Frustrated stressed single african mom having headache feel tired annoyed about noisy active kids playing at home, upset disturbed black mother fatigued of difficult disobedient misbehaving children

ADHD and Weak Emotional Control: Yelling. All. the. Time.

Q: “I’m feeling defeated as a parent. My two kids (ages 6 and 8) and I all have ADHD. We’re all on medication — and doing fairly well overall — but emotional regulation is a big issue. I have become that always-yelling, high-anxiety mom and I don’t like what I see. Can you help?”

A: You are brave to share such an honest assessment of yourself and your parenting. It’s really hard to parent kids when you have ADHD, and it’s especially difficult in quarantine. You don’t get a break and they don’t get a break. It’s great that you’re being helped by medication but remember people with ADHD struggle with emotional control very naturally. ADHD brings with it other impairments like challenges with working memory, a key executive functioning skill that is innately tied to emotional control.

When you and your kids struggle with emotional control, you’re also struggling with working memory. Emotional control is something people with ADHD have to work hard to recognize and be conscious of.

You can help yourself by noticing when you’re starting to feel dysregulated (I call it, heading toward the edge). Look for signs in your body. I’m very emotional and I have to admit emotional control is not one of my strengths. I come from a long line of neurotic, intense women, and I get pretty easily triggered and I certainly lost it as a parent. Over the years I’ve worked at noticing when I’m getting upset and I’m better now. I’ve learned what I can do in the moment to calm down and it really helps.

When my emotions are activated, my stomach starts to clench. My heart pounds and I feel short of breath. Notice how your body responds when you get dysregulated and teach your kids to recognize it in themselves.

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder]

Strategize in advance what you can do to soothe yourself during those times — instead of being surprised each time they occur. This is where working memory comes in. It’s important to create a plan for success now because you need to be able to manage yourself first to be effective with your kids. If you’re dysregulated, your kids will pick up on it and throw kindling on the fire that’s already burning inside of you.

Once you know your warning signs, think about what you can do to calm down. For me, splashing water on my face and washing my hands helps. I’m also a big fan of yogic breathing (see how-to, below).

Sometimes you need to call a time-out for yourself and that’s okay. If your children are too young to leave alone, try going into the bathroom and closing the door. (Kids understand that people go to the bathroom alone.) Take a few minutes to decompress even if there’s chaos on the other side.

Focus on just one aspect of regulating your emotions at a time. If you think, “I need to regulate all my emotions,” the task can be overwhelming. It’s too big of a chunk to tackle.

[How to Identify Symptoms of Emotional Distress Syndrome]

Ask your kids to join you in this endeavor. Help them identify emotional triggers and figure out what part to work on first. Then, create some sort of plan for when things bubble up and work on it together.

Self care is also very important for overall emotional control. The ADHD brain has intense feelings, which can be erratic. Right now, many people with ADHD are suffering from negative mood. Know that feeling moody is normal during uncertain times.

You’ve no doubt heard this before, but it bears repeating — exercise is really helpful for people with ADHD. Exercise bathes the brain in endorphins, which makes you feel calm. Think about how you could bump up your daily exercise. Whether it’s a 20-minute yoga or dance workout online, walking around the block three times, or riding a bike, find some way to move every day. It will help you manage your feelings.

Journaling is another great way to manage your feelings. At the end of each day, write down three good things about your day. They don’t have to be great or extraordinary things, just record a few things that brought you some pleasure. Maybe you enjoyed a good cup of tea or found $5 in your pocket. Being able to notice what’s going well will counteract our negative self-talk and the negativity bias that dominates our brains.

Yogic Breathing How-To
With the finger of your right hand, press your right nostril closed. Take a deep breath through the left nostril then close the left nostril with the finger of your left hand and exhale through your right nostril. Close the right nostril and inhale through the left nostril. Repeat inhaling and exhaling through opposite nostrils a few times until you feel calmer.

ADHD and Weak Emotional Control: Apologies Without Meaning

Q: “My son, age 11 with ADHD, constantly annoys our cat by picking her up when she wants to be left alone. He apologizes over and over again but continues to pick up the cat. How can I teach my son that saying, ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t fix the poor choice or give permission to continue repeating it?”

A: Kids with ADHD apologize because they’re not able to control their impulses to do something that seems like a good idea at that moment. The reality is that, once they’re doing that thing they want to do, they realize it’s not a good idea and they apologize. Can they retain that information about what is and is not a good idea going forward? That’s a slower process.

Again, working memory challenges, make it harder for kids with ADHD to learn the lessons they need to learn. They learn them, but the lessons are not encoded as quickly and efficiently as they would be in a neurotypical brain.

Institute apologies of action to help your child learn how to make sincere apologies. Instead of apologizing for the same thing over and over, have your child think about what they could do to actually make amends. In the case of annoying the cat, what could the child do that would be nice for the cat after annoying her? Perhaps the cat enjoys a gentle tummy rub or being brushed.

We want to help kids figure out what it means to actually feel sorry, not to just say they are sorry. Ask them how they can show they are sorry and share your ideas with them when they share theirs.

This also helps them learn that, when they say they’re sorry over and over, it’s like the boy who cried wolf — that apology means less and less. So, instead of apologizing and not being able to change your behavior, brainstorm some ideas with them. What else could they say? Put some of those responses on a refrigerator and help them figure out what an apology of action does.

If one of your children breaks the LEGO castle of another, saying sorry is nice, it’s important. But the child needs to be accountable for breaking the castle. Asking what it looks like to make amends helps them own their behavior and understand the concept of being accountable. But what does it look like to make amends? Maybe it’s building another LEGO creation with your brother or your sister.

ADHD and Weak Emotional Control: Blatant Lying

Q: “My almost 14-year-old boy lies vehemently. Even when he’s caught red-handed — with his hand in the cookie jar — he denies it! Is this because he’s a teenager and thinks he can get away with everything? The lie that bothers me most is when he lies about taking his medicine, then expects us to trust him. What can we do?”

A: Parents often ask me what part of certain behaviors is due to ADHD and what part is adolescence. The answer is that it’s both. ADHD and adolescence are a beautiful mix — and they’re innately tied. A 14-year-old wants to get away with things. That’s a normal part of adolescence. Teens will push up against you to see how much they can get away with every time — and when they do it’s frustrating.

Why do kids with ADHD lie? Well, they lie for many reasons. One is because they want to see if they can get away with it… just like any teenager. Two is because they may feel bad about the decision they made. And, three because they’re trying to figure out where they stop and where you begin. They grappling with things like what they have control over and what their independence looks like.

Your teenager is trying to assert his independence by not taking his medication and saying he did, “Oh, there I am… I’m a little independent.” It’s really important to explain trust to kids and to teach them that they earn trust — and independence —by doing good. Here’s a system that works for many families I counsel.

How ADHD Teens Can Earn Your Trust

Let your kids know that you’ve started a family trust bank account for them. When they lie, you take “money” (trust) from that account. They can add the trust “money” back to the bank by doing what the family — you and the child — has agreed to do. That’s part one.

The second part is on you. As parents, it important to acknowledge trust-building behavior and make some deposits into their bank. You don’t have to prepare a steak dinner, but if they made their bed, picked up their room, or walked the dog without being asked, let them know you noticed. They need to understand that trust is something they need to earn, not something they are automatically entitled to. This is one of the common stresses between parents and teenagers.

The way to bridge this divide is to give your son opportunities to earn your trust. Put his medication in a pill box with compartments for each day of the week. That way when he takes his medication you can see he took it. (Reminders are okay.) Acknowledge that he took his medication and let him know that taking his pill regularly earns him a consistent deposit in the trust account.

Providing positive feedback for the effort they are making to build trust is an effective motivator. Once they’ve earned that trust you can start doling out privileges, so be sure you decide in advance what privileges they’d like to have once you have the trust you need.

[Read This Next: ADHD & Lying – the Flight, Fight, Freeze, or Fib Response]

This article is based on Dr. Sharon Saline’s interactive Facebook LIVE event broadcast on May 15, 2020. To download “The 5 C’s of ADHD,” a free resource with key takeaways from Dr. Saline’s book What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew (#CommissionsEarned), visit https://drsharonsaline.com/downloadables/5cs


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Updated on October 8, 2020

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