Helping Kids with ADHD Manage Big Emotions

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

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:

Teach-It Phase

  1. Learning to label emotions and sensations. At a time when your child is calm, teach him or her about emotions. Help your child list out some of the emotions he or she experiences often, and the way that his or her body feels when 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 he or she can more realistically recall how his or her body might feel. Let your child know that these physical sensations are the first clue that he or she is about to experience a strong emotion.
  2. Identify calming strategies. Next, help your child think of two calming strategies that he or she can use when feeling overwhelmed with emotion. These should be easy to do, at home or in public. For example, walking away from the situation and taking five deep breaths, closing his or her eyes and thinking of something that makes him or her 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 he or she is 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 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:

  1. Help your child label his or her emotion. Calmly ask your child how he or she is feeling. If your child has difficulty with this, label the emotion for him or her, “It seems like you are pretty sad right now.”
  2. Prompt him or her to use a calming strategy. Remind your child of the strategies he or she had selected and practiced, and prompt him or her to use one of the strategies now.
  3. Provide feedback. After your child has used the strategy, give feedback. “You walked away and 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 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.


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