Helping Kids with ADHD Manage Big Emotions

Have you noticed that your child or teen with ADHD seems to be “more emotional” than their friends or classmates without ADHD? Are they happier and more excited when something positive happens, and more sad, irritable, angry when something doesn’t go their way? Many kids with ADHD feel their emotions more powerfully than kids without ADHD. At times, the unbridled joy and excitement expressed by a child with ADHD is a gift, and their enthusiasm is infectious. The challenge comes when their excitement grows so big that it can’t be contained, and leads to behaviors that are unsafe or are disproportionate to the situation. Conversely, when a child with ADHD is feeling deeply sad, irritable, or angry, they can become consumed by the emotion. They may struggle to move beyond their feelings in the moment, and see the upsetting event within the context of a bigger picture. Even small problems can trigger big emotional reactions that stick around and interfere with friendships, school, or family time.

At a young age, all kids have a difficult time managing their emotions. Toddlers are prone to tantrums because the parts of the brain that deal with self-regulation aren’t well developed at this stage. Over the course of development, kids without ADHD naturally develop the capacity to better manage their emotions. For kids ADHD, the capacity and skills for emotion regulation lag behind those of their peers, and many don’t naturally acquire the skills they need to effectively manage their emotions. Fortunately, emotion regulation skills can be taught, and kids with ADHD can gradually learn to become better at managing their emotions.

Teaching kids with ADHD to regulate their emotions involves two phases:

Teach-It Phase

  1. Learning to label emotions and sensations. At a time when your child is calm, teach them about their emotions. Help them list out some of the emotions they experience often, and the way that their body feels when they are having these emotional reactions. For example, “When I am angry, my face feels hot and my fists are clenched.” It can be helpful to allow your child to play-act these feelings, so they can more realistically recall how their body might feel. Let your child know that these physical sensations are the first clue that they are about to experience a strong emotion.
  2. Identify calming strategies. Next, help your child think of two calming strategies that they can use when they are feeling overwhelmed with emotion. These should easy to do, at home or in public. For example, walking away from the situation and taking five deep breaths, closing their eyes and thinking of something that makes them smile or laugh, or calmly walking away and getting a drink of water. You can also choose one or two at-home activities, like coloring or drawing, or writing down how they are feeling.
  3. Read together. Many kids and parents also find it helpful to read books about emotions. There are quite a few great books available for younger kids, like The Way I Feel, by Janan Cain and Listening to My Body, by Gabi Garcia (for kids in preschool – about 4th grade). For girls ages 9 and up, The Feelings Book: The Care and Keeping of Your Emotions, by Dr. Lynda Madison is an excellent resource, and Understanding Myself, by Dr. Mary Lamia can be helpful for both boys and girls in this age range.

Use-It Phase

Once your child has learned to identify their emotions, the physical sensations that signal their arrival, and a few calming strategies that they can use when their feelings become overwhelming, they will need reminders to use these tools in the moment – when they are experiencing powerful feelings. When you notice that your child is having difficulty managing a big emotion:

  1. Help them label their emotion. Calmly ask your child how they are feeling. If they have difficulty with this, label the emotion for them, “It seems like you are pretty sad right now.”
  2. Prompt them to use a calming strategy. Remind them of the strategies they had selected and practiced, and prompt them to use one of the strategies now.
  3. Provide feedback. After your child has used the strategy, give them feedback. “You walked away a took a lot of deep breaths. You seem calmer now.”

Learning to manage emotions takes time, and your child will need repetition and practice to learn these skills. So, stay positive. Even if your child doesn’t use their calming strategies perfectly, or seems only slightly calmer than they were before, recognize their efforts and improvement. It may not seem like it in moment, but these small improvements are actually big steps in the right direction.

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