Meltdowns & Anger

Calm Starts at Home: How to Teach Emotional Regulation Skills

Emotional regulation skills help children with ADHD tame meltdowns, outbursts, and other negative behaviors. Here, learn how parents can become emotional role models to their children and help create supportive environments.

Emotional regulation: A young child hugging her father with a smile on her face.

Emotional regulation skills (also known as self-regulation) empower us to process difficult experiences and feelings without getting overly triggered or spiraling out of control. With attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD), which impairs executive functioning and thus affects the effective management of attention, time, and our emotions, intense emotional reactivity can be as disruptive as almost any other symptom.

Parents of children with ADHD are intimately familiar with these extreme emotional bouts –– outbursts, meltdowns, and tantrums that leave both parent and child feeling exhausted, and possibly powerless. What they might not realize is that, through medication, mindfulness techniques, awareness, and behavioral interventions, emotional regulation skills can be taught to children with ADHD.

Emotional Regulation Strategy #1: Accurately Label Feelings

Effective emotional regulation hinges on emotional intelligence — the ability to be aware of, express, and manage our emotions on our own and in relationships. This all starts with noticing our feelings as they come and go, which is not as easy as it seems.

Research suggests that a more complex emotional vocabulary adds nuance to our emotional experiences. If you only know “anger,” then any similar emotion becomes “anger.” If you recognize, in a more subtle way, when you feel “annoyed,” “anxious,” “sad,” “frustrated,” or “disappointed,” you more accurately pinpoint your experience. A larger emotional vocabulary could affect how we interpret a difficult moment.

A healthy familiarity with emotion starts with a family open to all emotions. All emotions exist for a reason, so there isn’t a lot of benefit in ignoring them. For example, anger keeps us safe in certain situations, and sadness signals those around you that you need support. Emotional maturity develops over time; it’s normal for younger children to have a hard time with it. Read books, talk about emotion, and describe your own emotions to your child.

[Get This Free Download: 10 Ways to Neutralize Your Child’s Anger]

Normalize emotions by keeping them in the open and show children how to manage them. You might say, “I’m angry; we will talk once I’ve calmed down.” Sometimes it is better to keep emotions to yourself. You may worry or feel angry more than your child needs to know. But when you’re able, showing emotional self-control is its own teaching tool for children.

Still, an emotionally open household does not eradicate all challenges, of course. It isn’t a parent’s fault when a child has trouble with emotions; it’s often an aspect of ADHD itself.

Emotional Regulation Strategy #2: Behavior Interventions

Behavioral interventions are a labor-intensive but proven path to better emotional skills for struggling children. Behavioral programs are key tools for educating even the best-behaved child. Some programs work directly with children, while others focus on parent training.

Child-directed therapy, where kids learn to identify emotions first and build coping skills to meet what they experience, can be vital for anyone with ADHD. Parental involvement helps, as adults reinforce what their children may otherwise forget to work on. Child-focused therapy should offer direct guidance in forming practical new habits, as children learn to handle their own disruptive emotions.

[Essential Reading: Behavioral Therapy for ADHD — A Pragmatic Parent’s Guide]

On the other hand, one useful short-term strategy for managing emotion is often entirely parent-based. Behavior parent training (BPT) reflects what we know of brain development – kids learn primarily from immediate feedback in early childhood. One foundational teaching point of BPT is recognizing the difference between our emotions and our behaviors. Parents should aim to validate emotion, but not unwanted behavior: “I can see you are angry, but it is never OK to hit.” A coordinated behavioral plan that balances praise and reward with firm limits and consequences is vital for managing emotion in children.

Tantrums, for example, are often nothing more than a behavior triggered by a cause: “I don’t want to stop playing my video game.” This makes sense; we all get angry. With a behavioral plan, we validate that anger (“I see that you’re frustrated”) but tie it to a more appropriate behavior (“If you shut down your game appropriately, you can have 15 extra minutes tomorrow”). The lesson is that any emotion is OK, but certain actions are not.

Behavioral plans are evidence-based ADHD care. However, they are often abandoned early, because they may require exhausting effort and lots of modification to work. Keep adjusting until you have a strategy that works and consult with a professional or coach if your system seems ineffective.

Emotional Regulation Strategy #3: ADHD Medication

Many people manage medical disorders without medication, and that’s great when it works. But sometimes, our health requires more. That’s why medication may play a significant role in fostering emotional regulation in individuals with ADHD.

ADHD is a medical disorder. This doesn’t mean that medication is the only tool to cope with it, but it does validate considering medication. ADHD medications are safe and effective when used appropriately. Despite common misperceptions, the correct medication should have benefits with no significant side effects.

ADHD medications do not primarily address emotional reactivity, but they often help. Since irritability can get better or worse with ADHD medication (better when you’re on the right one), monitor your child’s symptoms closely while making adjustments. Work with your doctor to find the right dose and medication until you feel comfortable with what your child takes.

When selecting ADHD medication, the clinician must also consider the possibility of a co-occurring condition. Up to two-thirds of children with ADHD have one, such as anxiety or a sleep disorder. These disorders may affect emotional symptoms independently of ADHD.

Emotional Regulation Strategy #4: Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness means paying more unbiased, moment-to-moment attention to how things are right now, for better or worse. The premise, to be clear, isn’t that we will be always calm or happy. Life is inherently changing and uncertain, and we benefit from skills to navigate that reality.

Emotional regulation is one of the most proven benefits of mindfulness. Over time, it trains our brain like a muscle. We hard-wire new traits, such as observing discomfort without reacting immediately. We can practice noting emotions without falling into habitual patterns we all have.

Most of us spend a lot of time distracted, reactive, and on autopilot. For example, we might feel overwhelmed when our child has another tantrum, and fall into unthinking habits ourselves, like caving in or using over-the-top consequences. But with mindfulness, our ability to stay settled expands, allowing us to see our options with clarity and act with clearer purpose.

Mindfulness is usually done through meditation – we focus on something neutral, like our breath or the feeling of our feet on the floor, as a place to return to when our busy mind wanders. When the next distraction happens, we start again. Through that, we create a new habit of awareness and skill in managing emotions.

For families, mindfulness begins with adults. It’s not much use telling someone else, like our children, to go practice mindfulness, while we overreact emotionally. It is also an unavoidable part of life that anger and reactivity lead to more anger and reactivity. Live mindfully, and your children learn mindfulness from observing you.

When you see an opportunity, introduce mindfulness for your kids — maybe through a brief bedtime meditation for a younger child, or finding a teen group for an older one. Even if your child doesn’t buy in initially, the broader goal is to plant seeds that, one day, will lead to a consistent practice of mindfulness for your children.

With time, mindfulness becomes instinctual. We notice what’s going on internally (“I’m so furious”) and create space for healthier choices (“I’m going to settle down before I figure out what to do”). Not surprisingly, recent studies show specific benefits for managing emotions in children with ADHD, some even as young as seven years old.

Tantrums, anger, and emotionality related to ADHD increase stress, decrease positive connections, and generally make life difficult. The pattern, in turn, erodes the resilience required to manage ADHD in the first place, further escalating everyone’s emotions. There are even health implications: Chronic intense tantrums make it harder to get kids to eat, sleep, or even exercise, again undermining emotional management. Getting anger and emotion under control has layers of benefit.

Emotional Regulation: Next Steps for Parents


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Updated on August 11, 2020

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