When thinking of ADHD symptoms, most people think of attention problems and fidgetiness. They don’t often think of trouble regulating emotions. Dr. Russell Barkley explains that scientifically, people with ADHD cannot regulate their emotions like neurotypical people can. They struggle with the mental processes known as executive functions. In the brain, the frontal cortex assesses situations and determines the best way to react. People with ADHD have weak neurochemical connectivity in that area and therefore cannot screen their emotions before reacting. People with ADHD also struggle with working memory, meaning that they may focus too much on the present moment. All of this results in emotional outbursts that can affect all aspects of the person’s life. For example, a person with ADHD may panic over small problems, have trouble calming down, or get overly excited. They may also be sensitive to disapproval or put off dealing with known problems to avoid negative emotions.
There are ways to manage the strong emotions brought on by ADHD, but children may need extra help learning how to do this. As a parent, you can support your child while they build emotional resistance.
Two forms of self-awareness can help people with ADHD manage their emotions: body awareness and emotional awareness. Alan P. Brown, an ADHD coach, explains that “body awareness helps you identify unhealthy feelings and step off the emotional merry-go-round”. When your child starts to feel stressed, you can help them identify where in their body they tense up. This teaches them to recognize the stress. Once they’ve done that, they can move on to defusing the stress.
You can help your child build emotional awareness by teaching them to name their emotions when they start to get flooded. Because emotions are complex, try having them use more than one word to describe how they’re feeling. This teaches them to recognize their different feelings and then learn how to address each one.
Setting Up for Calm
Maintaining all aspects of one’s health can better prepare people with ADHD (and all people) for stressors. When they feel content and healthy, they are more likely to react to a stressor appropriately and calmly rather than having a meltdown. Children learn how to live a healthy life from their parents, so it is important to teach them early. First, the basics. Eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and getting about eight hours of sleep every night is not only essential for physical health but also emotional health.
In addition, there are many cognitive-focused ways to maintain a healthy personal environment. For example, you can have your child write down things they’re grateful for every day. You can teach them to have self-compassion by first being compassionate to them. When they make a mistake, be understandably firm but also forgiving and encouraging. This will teach them to treat themselves with the same kindness when they grow up. If they are old enough, you can also encourage your child to journal their thoughts in order to encourage emotional processing. It might be best to let your child keep this journal private so that they can self-disclose as honestly as possible.
Maintaining healthy relationships can also prepare people with ADHD for stressors. Social support is another layer of protection against floods of emotion because people who feel validated and loved are more emotionally stable on a baseline. Socialization is especially important for developing children and should be (reasonably) encouraged by parents.
Finally, you should not only ensure your child is practicing these behaviors, but also model them yourself.
Establish Coping Strategies
Having strategies in place to deal with emotional outbursts can greatly help you and your child handle them. One way to cope with stressors is to anticipate common ones and plan for them. For example, if your child gets stressed out by going to the grocery store, you can prepare for this. You can keep your grocery trip short, try making the trip more fun and imaginative, or go through it as normal but let your child play or watch their favorite show afterwards. Hopefully with this strategy, common stressors will not cause as much emotional distress.
Another way to cope with a stressor is to shift attention away from the problem. This technique is especially effective for children because it is simple. For example if a fight with their friend is triggering their emotions, you can try your best to redirect their attention to something else like homework or a snack. Hopefully by the time they are done with the distraction, they will have simmered down. It can be difficult to implement this strategy if your child’s stressor is school-related, but breaks should be allowed.
A final coping strategy is humor. Joking about the situation can change your and your child’s perspectives on it. The problem may not seem as big as it initially did. Of course, you want to be lighthearted but don’t want to take it so far as to invalidate your child’s feelings.
One way to help your child build emotional resilience is to have them rechannel the emotions. First, you can try encouraging your child to replace the negative emotion with a positive one. Gratitude is an especially powerful deterrent to negative emotions. If your child is upset about something, try asking them, “Hey, what are three good things about this situation?” Teaching your child to recognize the good in bad situations can defuse their outbursts.
Consider Life Coaching/Therapy to Understand Common Stressors
Life coaching or therapy can help both you and your child deal with emotional outbursts better. A professional can teach you how to best address your child’s tantrums without further triggering them or enabling their behavior. The professional can also help your child manage their emotions and implement effective coping strategies. Finally, a life coach or therapist can help you and your child identify recurring stressors and determine if you can eliminate or at least lessen them in your child’s life.
ADHD can heighten emotions and make it hard for your child to go about life the same as others do. However if you teach your child to be mindful and prepared, they can build emotional resistance early and be prepared to handle future stress appropriately.