Have you noticed that your child or teen with ADHD seems to be “more emotional” than his or her friends or classmates without ADHD? Is he or she happier and more excited when something positive happens, and more sad, irritable, angry when something doesn’t go his or her 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 his or her 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, he or she can become consumed by the emotion. Your child may struggle to move beyond his or her 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 ADHD kids, 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:
Once your child has learned to identify his or her emotions, the physical sensations that signal their arrival, and a few calming strategies that he or she can use when his or her feelings become overwhelming, he or she will need reminders to use these tools in the moment – when experiencing powerful feelings. When you notice that your child is having difficulty managing a big emotion:
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 his or her calming strategies perfectly, or seems only slightly calmer than he or she was before, recognize the efforts and improvement. It may not seem like it in moment, but these small improvements are actually big steps in the right direction.