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My Daughter’s Emotional Floods – and the Unseen Damage Left Behind

When my daughter is overwhelmed with anger or frustration – what we call emotional flooding – I take extra care to let her know she is loved with these strategies.

The intense and sudden screaming coming from my 8 year old might have suggested a giant, poisonous snake bite. Or a house fire. Perhaps even an alien abduction. But, no, the actual event preceding the scream heard ‘round the world was… wait for it… being told to take a shower.

But not one minute later, she happily hopped into the shower while laughing at something funny her baby brother was doing – with zero acknowledgment of the explosion just moments before.

It all left me scratching my head, so I went looking for rhyme or reason – preferably both.

I recognized my daughter right away in this description of intense and sudden reactions written by Thomas E. Brown, Ph.D: “Flooding: A momentary emotion that can gobble up all of the space in an ADHDer’s head like a computer virus can gobble up all of the space in a hard drive.”

So there’s a name for it: flooding. Hooray!

Now what?

Her intense flooding emotions take me by surprise every time. I used to try to end the extreme outbursts by talking, arguing, and even screaming through them. Of course, that only prolonged the flood.

[[Self-Test] Could My Child Have ADHD?]

I now know she really couldn’t hear my logic during that time… but she could certainly hear my anger. And that only fed the flood.

When we both reached the point of drowning, I knew I had to stop responding. I began saying, “I will not fight with you” – and I stuck to it.

Gradually – oh, so gradually – she understood I was serious. And her brain mercifully allowed the waters to recede quicker during each flood.

But the floods haven’t disappeared. And while they’re now shorter, they’ve developed a dangerous mutation. In place of the arguments, she activates blame and self-pity. “Nobody cares about me!” she shouts. “Why does everyone treat me so bad?”

[Your Free 13-Step Guide to Raising a Child with ADHD]

This new element – the expressed anguish over not feeling loved – gnaws at me.

Does she mean what she says? Does she really believe nobody cares about her? Does she truly think we’re treating her badly?

I know she felt it in the moment. But does it linger? Does it build?

I don’t know.

And I know I won’t know for a long time. I may not know until she’s an adult and she’s able to articulate how deeply it hurt when she stood screaming that nobody loved her… and nobody did anything.

Will she understand that my hands are tied? That I literally can’t do anything without propelling her into a deeper fury?

All I know is that letting the flood fill her brain without resistance is the shortest path to returning calm. And because there are other children in the house, I worry about their happiness. So if ignoring her snake-bite screams gets us all to a happier place sooner, that’s what I feel I have to do.

But should I just keep letting the floods happen without worrying about the leftover water damage?

No.

During the happy times, my job is to caulk any leaks; to batten down the hatches; to give her solid footing that can better withstand a flood. Here’s how I think about doing that.

My Fortifying Plan for Withstanding the Floods

• She and I picked the number 10 as a daily hug goal. As we have fun reaching that number each day – getting sillier with every hug – I hope all my deposits into the bank of security and warmth will supersede any flood damage.

• Her love language falls somewhere between hugs and words, so I leave love notes where she’ll find them.
• We read stories while we snuggle.

• I’ve recently re-resolved to try and stop what I’m doing to give my attention to her when she’s asking for it.

I have to believe that refusing to fight when she is flooding is actually an act of mercy to her. Instead of installing a dam when her emotions desperately need to spill forth, I let her release them.

And then I just pray that my efforts to reinforce and build up during the happy times will carry more weight than the hurt feelings during the floods.

[Read This Next: Time for Plan B? 10 Tips for Dealing with the Explosive Child]

Updated on June 22, 2020

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  1. Wow! I’m so thankful I am not the only one! We started seeing a therapist because of this specifically! I didn’t think of doing that hug thing! Good idea!

  2. When my child, and a friends child as well, had these flooding episodes I used to: hold them in a tight hug, rock them very gently, use a soft ‘shush’ and tell them in a soft whisper “I love you” over and over until they calmed; similar to rocking a baby that is crying. This way they hear the words of love, and feel the comfort of a hug when they are hurting the most. This technique also works on me as an adult with ADHD. The hug also helps keep them from physically lashing out and hurting themselves or someone else. I started using this technique with my child at a early age, probably since birth. Somehow this quiets us very quickly. I know for me that the hugging part reaches through the overwhelm of the flood, grounding me in the here and now; as well as assuring me that everything will be alright and that I am loved and lovable even in the midst of the storm. And I need that reassurance in the moment, not later.

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