Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: How Can I Manage My Teen’s Intense Emotions?

Teenage emotions can be intense and dysregulated, especially if your adolescent has ADHD. Here, learn calming strategies that ease even the most extreme emotions in puberty.

Q: “My 13-year-old has become super emotional and upset lately when faced with a challenge, particularly if it’s related to school. He spirals into a near panic when a single homework question doesn’t make sense to him, and he gets easily overwhelmed when looking at a list of assignments. We know his intense emotions are probably related to puberty – how can we best help him?”

Middle school, already marked by increased academic demands and expectations, is certainly made more challenging by the intense emotions and dysregulation that stem from puberty. Combine this with ADHD, and your teen’s response to tough homework questions or a heavier workload are understandable — even expected.

How to Manage Teenage Emotions

1. Educate your adolescent. It’s important to help your child understand what’s going on with their bodies and brains. You don’t necessarily need to delve into puberty; just explain what’s happening in the brain. They need to understand that emotionality and anxiety are the mind’s defense mechanisms. Talking about their brain depersonalizes the issue and makes kids more inclined to learn how to calm down their own brains.

[Click to Read: How Symptoms Manifest as Unique Challenges for Adolescents]

2. Teach them how to calm the brain. There are several exercises your child can learn to calm intense emotions and build emotional resilience. Here’s one: Place the fingers behind the neck and flare the elbows out so that the lower back starts slightly arching. Push into the feet as you enter this position and take a few deep breaths. This posture activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart and calms the brain.

3. Step back when emotions run high. You cannot rationalize with a child who is out of control. The brain in these moments is flooded with cortisol, meaning that access to their prefrontal cortex (the thinking brain) is cut off. They cannot hear you and can’t respond rationally. In fact, statements like, “Just calm down” can be interpreted as an “attack” and lead to further spiraling – “I don’t know how to do this. I’m not smart enough” leads to, “I’m not going to get this, and mom’s going to be mad at me.”

Instead of chiming in, be quietly present. Stand by your child and say nothing (but keep eye contact). Cortisol is what’s fueling the outbursts, but in the absence of further stimulation, they’ll calm down in about 90 seconds.

4. Take apart the trigger. In the case of a homework question that’s too difficult, for example, encourage your child to read one sentence at a time and then draw a little picture that explains its meaning. This step is great for gauging where your child gets confused, which is often the source of anxiety and eventual meltdowns.

Teenage Emotions and ADHD: Next Steps

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